Burritos are one of the most popular Mexican dishes around the world. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether burritos should be considered authentic Mexican cuisine or more of a Mexican-American fusion food. This article will examine the history and origins of burritos, looking at evidence both for and against burritos being classified as truly Mexican.
Some key questions around this debate include:
- Where did burritos first originate from?
- How were early burritos made and what did they contain?
- When did burritos become popular in the United States?
- How much have burritos changed from their traditional Mexican form?
Analyzing these questions can provide insight into whether modern burritos still reflect authentic Mexican culinary roots or if they have morphed into more of a Mexican-American hybrid food.
Origins and History of Burritos
Burritos likely originated in Mexico in the 18th or 19th century, although the exact origins are obscure. Some of the earliest references to burritos come from Mexican culinary texts from the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1895, a Spanish dictionary defined a burrito as a “tortilla rolled around any fillings, especially meat and chili peppers.” Other early Mexican cookbooks describe burritos made from wheat or corn tortillas wrapped around machaca beef, carne seca, or eggs.
These early burritos were smaller than modern burritos, with some historical accounts suggesting they were hand-held or pocket-sized. They also tended to have fewer ingredients – usually just meat, chilies, and onions wrapped in a small wheat tortilla. Cheese, rice, beans, and other fillings now common in burritos do not appear to have been used in traditional Mexican burritos during this period.
The origins of the word “burrito” itself provides clues about how they originated. “Burrito” means “little donkey” in Spanish, which some historians believe suggests burritos may have first emerged as food for people traveling by donkey or working with donkeys. The small, handheld size of early burritos and their simple, portable ingredients fit this theory of burritos being invented for convenience while traveling or working outside.
Traditional Burrito Fillings and Ingredients
As burritos spread through Mexico, traditional fillings varied by region but tended to use local ingredients and foods:
- Northern Mexico – Burritos with machaca (dried meat), carne seca (dried beef), or carne asada (grilled meat)
- Jalisco – Potato and chorizo burritos
- Sinaloa – Mariscos (seafood) burritos
- Yucatan Peninsula – Cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style pork)
Common components of burrito fillings included:
- Meats: Carne asada, grilled steak, chorizo (Mexican sausage), chicken, pork
- Cheese: Queso fresco, cotija
- Vegetables: Onions, nopales (cactus), potatoes, zucchini
- Beans: Pinto, black, refried beans
- Chilies: Jalapeno, poblano, ancho, serrano
Tortillas used were usually smaller 6-8 inch wheat or corn tortillas. Avocados, tomato, lettuce, and rice only appeared as burrito fillings after exposure to American tastes.
Popularity of Burritos in Mexico
Within Mexico, records suggest burritos were popular primarily as portable lunch or dinner foods for laborers and travelers from the late 19th century through the 1930s. They were sold at street food stalls, by vendors at markets, and as convenience foods.
There is little evidence burritos played a major role in home cooking or formal restaurant dining in Mexico during this time. They were considered everyday, informal food. More traditional Mexican cuisine like mole, tamales, and tacos were the highlight of festivals, celebrations, and home cooking.
Burrito Popularity in Northern Mexico
Burritos became especially popular in Northern Mexico near the U.S. border. Northern Mexican states like Chihuahua, Baja California, and Sonora lay claim to inventing the burrito. There are several theories why burritos became so pervasive there:
- Cattle culture was strong in Northern Mexico, so beef machaca and carne asada were readily available burrito fillings.
- Wheat tortilla tradition was strong in the North, providing the perfect burrito wrapper.
- The arid climate made durable fillings like dried meat and potatoes ideal for burritos.
- Frequent cross-border business with the U.S. helped popularize burritos.
For these reasons, Northern Mexico became a hotbed for burritos by the early 20th century. Migrating north for work, Northern Mexicans likely brought burrito traditions with them into the U.S. Southwest.
Arrival of Burritos in the United States
Refugees fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920 helped bring burritos tradition to the United States. Areas like California, Texas, and Arizona saw an influx of Mexican immigrants during this period, including street food vendors who sold burritos.
Burritos gained visibility in the U.S. during this time. For instance, the official website of the town of Gustine, California claims a Mexican immigrant named Febronio Ontiveros sold the first burritos in the U.S. there in the 1920s. Without concrete evidence, many towns in California and Texas make similar claims about early burrito sales.
What does seem clear is burritos became available in the U.S. Southwest by the 1920s through immigrant Mexican street vendors, small restaurants, and food stands. Americans first interpreted burritos as a humble working-class Mexican food.
1930s-1960s: Anglicization of Burritos
As burritos continued spreading through the U.S., they underwent an “Anglicization” process. Mexican restauranteurs adapted burritos to American tastes by:
- Making them larger
- Adding more fillings like rice and beans
- Using iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese
- Serving them with side dishes like chips and salsa
These Americanized burritos bore little resemblance to traditional Mexican versions. However, they became extremely popular, especially in Texas and California. Soldiers returning from World War II helped boost interest in Mexican food, exposing Americans to Tex-Mex burritos.
Fast food chains played a role in popularizing burritos nationally. Taco Bell added burritos to their menu in the 1950s. Burritos were attractive to chains due to their portability and profitability. By the 1960s, American consumers considered burritos and other Mexican foods like tacos to be mainstream.
Modern Evolution of Burritos
From the 1960s onward, burritos enjoyed growing national popularity. Regional styles emerged using local ingredients:
Originating in San Diego, California burritos typically include:
- French fries
- Sour cream
The California burrito is an extreme example of how far burritos evolved from traditional Mexican origins to suit U.S. tastes.
Filled with eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, cheese – breakfast burritos are now popular brunch and breakfast items. However, no equivalent existed in Mexico.
Green Chile Burritos
Featuring New Mexico’s signature green chili peppers, green chile burritos highlight how burritos absorb local flavors.
As burritos continue spreading, we’re even seeing Asian fusion burritos like Korean barbecue burritos. While creative, these twists on burritos often stray far from any authentic Mexican template.
Arguments on Whether Burritos Are Mexican Food
The evolution of burritos fuels arguments about whether they should be considered truly Mexican cuisine anymore.
Reasons why burritos today may not constitute authentic Mexican food:
- Ingredients like rice, cheese, lettuce did not exist in traditional Mexican burritos
- Mexican recipes don’t recognize “breakfast” or “California” burritos
- Burritos play a minor role in Mexican cuisine compared to tacos, mole, or tamales
- Burritos have been tailored to American tastes
According to this view, burritos belong in the category of Tex-Mex or Mexican-American fusion cuisine rather than authentic Mexican food.
Arguments for why burritos should still be considered Mexican food include:
- The concept and name “burrito” traces back to late 19th century Mexico
- Basic ingredients like tortillas, beans, and chilies are still Mexican-rooted
- Burritos do have a place, albeit small, in Mexican food history
- Mexican street food has always been open to inventing new combinations
Despite adaptations, burritos retain enough core elements to still qualify as Mexican cuisine. They simply reflect how Mexican food culture has evolved and adapted regionally.
The origins of burritos can undoubtedly be traced back to Mexican culinary tradition in the late 19th century. But burritos have clearly undergone an extensive Americanization process over the past century.
Modern burritos have been shaped by migrating Mexicans, Tex-Mex interpretations, and fast food marketing into something distinctly different from early burritos in Mexico. Yet they retain just enough key Mexican ingredients and history to still reasonably be considered a type of Mexican cuisine.
In the end, the category that best captures the blended roots of modern burritos is probably Tex-Mex or Mexican-American fusion. While not fully authentic Mexican food, burritos are not entirely separate from Mexican culinary origins either. Like other cross-cultural foods, burritos defy neat classification and instead represent a fluid, evolving cuisine born from exchange between Mexico and the United States. Their long history and popularity is a testament to how cultures blend through food.