Al pastor is a popular taco filling that originated in Mexico. It consists of thin slices of marinated pork that are roasted on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo. The meat is then shaved off and placed on corn or flour tortillas along with other taco fillings like onions, cilantro, and pineapple.
Al pastor gets its signature flavors from a marinade made with dried chiles, spices, and pineapple juice. This marinade was inspired by shawarma, which is slices of marinated meat cooked on a rotisserie. Shawarma was brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, who adapted it to local ingredients and flavors.
So does al pastor contain beef, like shawarma, or is it always made with pork? The answer is that traditionally, al pastor is made exclusively with pork. Beef is not used. However, there are some variations that do incorporate beef or other meats.
The History of Al Pastor
Al pastor has its origins in Lebanese shawarma. Here is a brief history:
– Lebanese immigrants brought shawarma to Mexico in the late 19th/early 20th century. Shawarma refers to the method of cooking thin slices of marinated meat stacked and roasted vertically on a rotisserie.
– In the 1960s, brothers Juan and Carlos Martinez opened the Tacos al Carbon restaurant in Mexico City. They adapted shawarma to Mexican flavors by using pork instead of lamb, pineapple instead of tomatoes, and local spices like achiote and guajillo chiles.
– The Martinezes called this adapted dish “tacos al pastor” to highlight its origins from the vertical rotisserie (“pastor” means shepherd in Spanish). It was also known as “tacos de trompo” after the rotating trompo grill.
– Al pastor was a hit, spreading from Mexico City across the country. It became one of the most popular taco fillings. Today it is considered a staple of Mexican cuisine.
So while shawarma can contain beef, lamb, or chicken, authentic al pastor in Mexico is traditionally made with pork. The pork is marinated and cooked on a rotating trompo grill before being sliced and served on tortillas.
Standard Pork Al Pastor Recipe
The traditional recipe for al pastor contains the following ingredients:
– Pork: Thin slices of pork shoulder or leg. This is the main meat.
– Pineapple: Diced pineapple is added to the marinade and cooked with the meat. The pineapple juice helps tenderize the pork and gives sweetness.
– Dried chiles: Chipotle, guajillo, ancho, and other dried chiles are rehydrated and used in the adobo marinade. They give red color and characteristic al pastor flavor.
– Spices and aromatics: The marinade contains spices like cumin, cinnamon, bay leaf, oregano, garlic, and onion. These add complex layers of flavor.
– Achiote: Ground annatto seeds lend earthiness and reddish-orange color.
– Salt, pepper, vinegar: For seasoning the meat.
– Trompo: The vertical rotisserie grill used to cook al pastor. Pork is stacked and roasted slowly, allowing it to become imbued with smoky, charred flavors.
So the standard ingredients are pork, pineapple, chiles, and spices. Beef is not used in traditional al pastor.
Why Pork is Traditionally Used
There are a few reasons why pork became the standard meat for al pastor tacos:
– Pork was cheaper and more widely available than lamb in Mexico. This made it a better option as al pastor spread across the country.
– Pork pairs very well with the marinade ingredients like pineapple, chiles, and achiote. The flavors beautifully complement and tenderize the pork.
– Pork cooks well and slices nicely when stacked vertically on a trompo. It can be shaved off smoothly into thin pieces after cooking.
– Pork has a milder flavor than lamb and absorbs the marinade readily. This allowed it to take on the spice and sweet characteristics fundamental to al pastor.
– Culturally, pork has been important in Mexican cuisine going back to pre-Hispanic times. Tacos al pastor fit well with culinary traditions already centered around pork.
So while shawarma used different meats, pork proved to be the best adapted protein to deliver the flavors and textures that define al pastor. The pork marries beautifully with the chiles, spices, and pineapple that make the dish so distinctive.
When Beef is Used
While pork is standard, there are some variations of al pastor that incorporate beef:
– Carne asada al pastor: Some taquerias offer “al pastor style” carne asada, using thin slices of beef instead of pork. The beef is marinated in typical al pastor seasoning.
– Mixed meat al pastor: Some vendors stack Alternating layers of pork and beef on the trompo, so the sliced meat contains both. This adds textural variety.
– Halal al pastor: To accommodate Muslim dietary restrictions, halal al pastor uses beef instead of pork, along with lamb or chicken.
– Veg al pastor: For vegetarian versions, seitan, soy protein, or mushrooms replace the meat entirely.
So while beef is not the traditional choice, it can sometimes be found in certain al pastor variations. Most commonly as an addition alongside the standard pork. But exclusive all-beef al pastor would be uncommon in Mexico.
Reasons to Substitute Beef
There are a few motivations for using beef in place of pork in some al pastor preparations:
– To accommodate diners who don’t eat pork for religious reasons. Jewish and Muslim customers may prefer beef or lamb al pastor.
– To provide a different textural experience by swapping in beef. This adds variety for diners who want to try something new.
– As a cost-saving measure. Beef can sometimes be cheaper than pork, depending on supply and quality.
– To utilize ingredients more readily available in a certain region. Some areas have better access to high quality beef than pork.
– For health reasons. Some diets restrict pork for health, fat content, or other concerns. Beef may be substituted in these cases.
– To adapt to local tastes and customs. Some regions or cultures may be more accustomed to beef in shawarma and thus prefer it for al pastor as well.
So beef al pastor is an acceptable variation in order to accommodate dietary restrictions, taste preferences, costs, availability, or cultural adaptations. But traditional Mexican al pastor is made from pork.
Comparing Pork and Beef for Al Pastor
Pork and beef have their own distinct qualities when used for al pastor:
|Flavor||Mild, sweet, good at absorbing marinade||Heartier, beefier flavor|
|Texture||Tender, juicy, slices cleanly off trompo||Can be chewier, drier|
|Fat content||Higher in fat||Lower in fat if using lean cuts|
|Cost||Usually cheaper||Often costs more|
|Production||Very widely available||Lower global production than pork|
– Pork offers great flavor, tenderness, and slicability for al pastor. It absorbs marinade well. The higher fat content keeps it juicy when cooking.
– Beef has a heartier, beefy flavor. It can sometimes be drier and chewier. But has a lower fat content. Beef works best for al pastor with very thin, tender cuts.
So while beef can make tasty al pastor, pork remains the gold standard. The ideal meat for soaking up the classic al pastor marinade and cooking up juicy and flavorful on the spinning trompo.
Global Variations of Al Pastor
Al pastor has spread around the world, along with Mexican migration and influence. Here are some global adaptations:
– In the United States, some taquerias offer beef, chicken, or mixed meat al pastor tacos catering to non-Hispanic customers. But traditional pork al pastor remains popular, especially in areas with large Mexican-American populations.
– In Europe and the Middle East, some restaurants label shawarma tacos or wraps filled with the customary meats of the region as “al pastor” to appeal to Mexican expats. So diners may encounter chicken, turkey, lamb, or beef al pastor.
– In Asia, chefs have innovatively used native meats like duck, pork belly, and even tofu for Korean- or Japanese-influenced al pastor. These often focus on the marinade more than the meat.
– Halal al pastor is found in Muslim communities globally. Countries like Indonesia adapt al pastor to Islamic dietary laws by using mutton or beef instead of pork.
– Creative vegan al pastor uses jackfruit, seitan, mushrooms, or pressed tofu to mimic the shreds of meat. The plant-based “meats” are marinated and cooked on the trompo for an authentic texture and appearance.
So around the world, al pastor is open to interpretation. But most diners still recognize pork as the definitive meat for genuine al pastor. The variations offer intriguing culinary twists while respecting the dish’s Mexican roots.
In Mexico and most Latin American countries, traditional al pastor is made exclusively with pork. While originally based on shawarma that used meats like lamb and beef, al pastor evolved to highlight pork as the ideal protein to deliver the right flavors, textures, and costs.
However, beef and other meats can be found in some global and adapted versions of al pastor. This may reflect cost, availability, religious accommodations, or simply culinary creativity with the quintessential “trompo” style of cooking. Nevertheless, for purists, authentic al pastor will always showcase thin slices of pork marinated in a chili-pineapple mixture and carved right off the rotating spit.