Tacos are perhaps the best known Mexican dish outside the country, and the simplest to prepare. The most straightforward way to describe them is as a corn tortilla wrapped around a filling – but this does not even begin to illustrate their diversity and exuberance, let alone their potential for complexity. Every region, every state, every town and village, every household and cook has a specific way of making tacos, a personal collection of recipes, a very precise idea of ingredients which can or cannot be included, a record of how their forebears made them, and an unshakable conviction that their tacos are the best. There are literally hundreds of recipes for tacos, some of them widely used and recognised, some of them perhaps limited to a remote district, where the filling has grown out of the very local chillies and other produce available. In Michoacán and Jalisco, for instance, tacos filled with different elements of a cow’s head are popular, and include ear, cheek, muzzle, tongue, brains and eyes...... Not for the faint-hearted perhaps. In Nuevo León, they fill their tacos with spicy, shredded beef, in Oaxaca with ants’ eggs, grasshoppers and caterpillars, or bright yellow “mole”, and in Yucatán it is wonderfully savoury pork baked in banana leaves. When it comes to tacos, literally anything goes.
Just as “antojitos” do not take the place of a meal, tacos are a snack, something to nibble on whenever the fancy takes you. They are so popular and so widely eaten in Mexico that there are restaurants, known as “taquerías”, which serve nothing but tacos – and needless to say, their menus are pages long. Tacos are also the province of the street cooks, of course, who prepare them according to what is available in the market, what is in season, what is the local speciality, what wonderfully spicy “guisado” or stew they happen to have made – but ask them for their recipe, and they will just shake their heads and tell you they make tacos the same way as their mother and grandmother made them. Their combinations may be simple and undemanding, in accordance with their very restricted cooking facilities, but they will be richly flavoured and full of punch.
The cooking method can vary. Some tacos are fried: once the corn tortilla has been rolled around the filling, it is secured with a small wooden skewer and then shallow-fried in lard or oil until crisp, golden and fragrant. In other cases, the tortillas are briefly heated on a “comal” or griddle before being laid out on the plate and the filling spooned onto them – then it is up to the diner to roll them up. Tacos “al vapor” are actually steamed, while the rather unattractively named “tacos sudados” come in a basket and are wrapped in a thick napkin which makes them a bit “sweaty”. However they are prepared, they usually arrive with a selection of accompaniments: salsas, perhaps some sour cream and grated cheese, sliced chillies, shredded lettuce or pickled onion rings.
Tacos of roasted peppers and chorizo - Tacos de rajas con chorizo
Fresh chorizo sausages are ideal for this recipe, but if they are not available, dried Spanish-style chorizos can be used. You will need to crumble them in a food processor or mini-chopper as they are quite solid.
1 large red bell pepper, about 200 g/7 oz
1 large yellow or orange bell pepper, about 200 g/7 oz
1 large poblano chilli or green bell pepper, about 200 g/7 oz
60 ml/4 tbsp olive oil
250 g/9 oz red onions, peeled and sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
225 g/8 oz chorizo sausages, casings removed
5 ml/1 tsp chipotle chilli sauce or powder, or mild chilli powder
5 ml/1 tsp Mexican or Greek oregano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Warm corn tortillas
Queso fresco, Feta cheese or goat’s cheese, crumbled
Cut the peppers and chilli in half and discard the stem, core and seeds. Slice into strips approximately 1 cm/1/2 in wide.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the onions, garlic and peppers until the onions are golden and the peppers are soft and starting to brown along the edges, about 15 minutes.
In a separate pan, fry the crumbled chorizo, mashing it with a fork or the back of a wooden spoon to break it up, until it is golden and has released most of its fat. Stir in the chipotle chilli sauce, oregano, pepper and onion mixture and some seasoning, and stir-fry until everything is piping hot. Check the seasoning.
The easiest way to serve the tacos is to put a basket of warm tortillas, the filling and the cheese on the table and let everybody help themselves and make their own: lay a warm tortilla out on a plate, spoon some filling down the centre, roll it up, sprinkle with cheese and eat immediately.