The origin of the taco is often attributed to Mexico, but identifying a specific founder has proven difficult. While tacos have existed in some form for centuries, they have evolved over time through the influences of various cultures and chefs. Instead of a single founder, the taco has emerged through the rich culinary history of Mexico.
The History of Tacos in Mexico
The evolution of the taco draws from various cultural traditions in Mexico. Here is a brief overview of some of the key influences:
- Indigenous cultures like the Aztecs and Mayans had corn tortillas and ate foods wrapped in corn tortillas known as “tlaxcalli.”
- When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they brought pork, beef, and wheat flour tortillas which were incorporated.
- “Tacos de canasta” emerged in the early 20th century from street food vendors in Mexico City.
- Northern Mexico’s flour tortilla tacos and “tacos dorados” influenced the modern crispy taco shell.
- Tacos al pastor became popular in the mid-20th century, bringing shawarma spit-grilled meat from Lebanese influence.
- American fast-food chains and Tex-Mex cuisine added ground beef, lettuce, and cheese elements common today.
From indigenous roots to the blending of Spanish, Lebanese, and American cultures, tacos integrate diverse influences without a single founder. The evolution continues today both in Mexico and worldwide.
Early Indigenous Foods and Cooking
Corn was first domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago and was an essential part of ancient Aztec and Mayan diets. These indigenous people ate corn in the form of tortillas and other dishes like tamales.
There is evidence that ancient Aztecs and other cultures ate foods like ants, locusts, and lake insects wrapped inside tortillas. The Nahuatl word “tacatl” referred to these bundled food packages. So the concept of wrapping foods in tortillas has long roots in Mexico’s ancient cultures.
These early ancestral foods represent the foundation for what would become the modern taco. The cooking of corn, use of tortillas, and wrapping of fillings reflect traditions still seen today. While not the modern taco, these methods laid early groundwork for its development.
Arrival of Spanish Influences
When Spanish colonizers arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they brought European livestock, produce, and cooking techniques. This included beef, pork, onions, wheat, and dairy products. The Spanish adopted the native “tacatl” filled tortillas but with their own ingredients.
Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described foods wrapped in tortillas in his eyewitness accounts from 1517-1521. He reported seeing native peoples serving fish and minced meat filled tortillas to Hernán Cortés and other conquistadors.
Through the colonial era into the 19th century, tacos continued to integrate Spanish ingredients. The wheat flour tortilla was developed as a hybrid of European and native cooking. tacos began taking on complex fillings like whole beans cooked with spices, cheese, cream, and chopped meat.
Emergence of Regional Styles
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, tacos and their fillings became more complex and varied regionally across Mexico. Transportation improvements allowed ingredients and cooking techniques to spread more widely.
Some key events in the development of regional taco styles:
- Northern Mexico – Flour tortillas and grilled meats became popular in states like Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. Tacos dorados (fried tacos) also emerged.
- Mexico City – With an influx of migrants, food vendors served “tacos de canasta” containing steamed tacos to workers on the streets.
- Baja California – Seafood tacos with fried fish and shrimp rose as popular local ingredients.
- Jalisco – The birthplace of mariachi music also saw birria tacos with spicy, chile-braised meats.
Even as late as the 1950s, tacos were still largely unknown in the United States. They were considered a regional food of Mexico. But that soon changed.
Rise of Tex-Mex Cuisine
A pivotal shift came with the rise of Tex-Mex cuisine in Texas along the Mexico border. This blended Texas farm and ranch ingredients with Mexican spices and cooking methods.
Key Tex-Mex taco innovations included:
- Use of cheddar cheese as a topping
- Thick, crispy fried taco shells made from corn or flour tortillas
- Ground beef as a widely available filling
- Combining lettuce, tomatoes, and other cool, fresh ingredients
These became staples across Tex-Mex menus in the U.S. and helped popularize Tex-Mex tacos to other regions. Restaurants like Taco Bell brought Americanized crisp shell tacos nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s.
Globalization in the Late 20th Century
In the latter decades of the 1900s, tacos accelerated their spread globally. They gained greater popularity in the U.S. beyond just the Southwest. International restaurant chains also brought tacos to new markets.
Some major developments aiding the global taco trend:
- Taco kits – Old El Paso and other brands sold seasoned taco kits for easy home cooking.
- Fast food – Taco Bell fueled the American taco craze along with competitors.
- Authentic Mexican chains – Brands like Chipotle and Qdoba brought tacos with Mexican ingredients to malls and cities across the U.S.
- Food trucks – Mobile taco vendors widened the reach and convenience of tacos on city streets.
- Media and culture – TV, movies, music, and books celebrated tacos in popular culture.
By the 1990s, tacos were no longer a regional American food. They were a mainstream menu item and cultural force now known around the world.
Evolution of Taco Types
From early indigenous origins to global popularity, tacos themselves have evolved across different styles. Some highlights in the development of popular taco types:
Tacos al Pastor
Based on the shawarma from Middle Eastern cuisine, tacos al pastor features thin slices of chile-marinated pork. It was brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the early 20th century and gradually spread through the country. The meat rotates on a vertical spit with a pineapple skewered above it to lend sweetness as the juices drip down. The flavor profile combines savory, sweet, and a touch of heat.
In the coastal regions of Mexico, soft corn tortillas stuffed with fried or grilled fish fillets gained favor. Baja fish tacos with fried white fish or shrimp, crunchy cabbage, crema, and salsa are now popular coast-to-coast. They provide a lighter, healthier taco option rich in seafood flavors.
These tacos have eggs, cheese, and meats like chorizo, bacon, or ham. They may contain potatoes or beans. Breakfast tacos originated in Texas but are now common fare at taco trucks and fast casual spots for a protein-packed start to the day.
These fusion-style tacos combine Korean barbecue meats like bulgogi beef with Mexican spices, kimchi, and salsa over corn tortillas. Originating from Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles, they mix culinary elements from Mexican Americans and Korean Americans.
Creative regional variations continue to emerge. Tacos offer a versatile and custom canvas for chefs to continually innovate within Mexican culinary tradition.
Key Events in Taco History Timeline
Here is an overview of pivotal moments and periods in the history and evolution of tacos over time:
- 8000-5000 BCE – First domestication of corn in ancient Mexico.
- 1000-400 BCE – Corn tortillas emerge as a staple in Aztec and Mayan cuisines.
- 1520s – Spanish report indigenous peoples eating small foods wrapped in tortillas following the arrival of Hernán Cortés.
- 1700s – Church writings describe Spanish settlers eating tacos filled with minced beef and peppers.
- 1889 – The first taco recipe is published in a Mexican cookbook.
- 1905 – The word “taco” begins appearing in English language dictionaries and texts.
- 1920s – “Tacos de canasta” sold from baskets emerge in Mexico City.
- 1940s – Northern Mexico’s flour tortilla tacos gain traction across the country.
- 1950s – Glenn Bell opens the first Taco Bell in Downey, California, popularizing American-style tacos.
- 1970s – Mexican American restaurateurs put greater focus on authentic ingredients and recipes.
- 21st century – Tacos become a global phenomenon through immigration, media, and chains.
This timeline shows key points in the complex evolution of tacos over thousands of years into what is now one of the world’s most popular foods.
Modern Innovations in Ingredients and Cooking
Today’s taco chefs continue advancing the cuisine with both new takes on tradition and creative recipe inventions. Some contemporary examples include:
Ingredients like tofu, jackfruit, and seared cauliflower replace or accompany meats in modern tacos. These provide vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options.
Korean barbecue steak, Japanese tempura shrimp, or Indian curry lentils are just some worldwide taste influences found in fusion tacos.
Many modern taquerias make tortillas in-house from heirloom corn varieties for exceptional freshness and texture.
Custom salsa bars allow customers to get creative mixing and matching complex salsas like roasted pineapple habanero or cucumber serrano.
Top-shelf and homemade ingredients like radish sprouts, queso fresco, or chicharrón add gourmet taco finishes.
These techniques ensure 21st century tacos continue broadening diversity and quality within the essential taco framework of folded tortillas.
Regional Styles Across Mexico
While tacos are popular nationwide, distinct regional variations have developed across Mexico’s states and cities. Some local taco style highlights include:
Baja fish tacos showcase fresh catches from the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez. Fillings like fried mahi mahi, shrimp, lobster, or cilantro-lime marinated fish are common.
As the capital and melting pot of Mexico, DF or CDMX is known for tacos al pastor from Puebla, classic fillings like carnitas or tinga, and pre-Hispanic ingredients like huitlacoche corn mushrooms.
The birthplace of tequila features tacos with spicy, chile-infused braised meats or birria. Grilled queso fundido, roasted chiles, and potatoes are also popular taco fillings.
Being on the Gulf Coast, Veracruz tacos showcase an abundance of fresh seafood. Favorites include shrimp, seasoned fish, and ceviche not found inland.
Known for complex moles, Oaxaca shines with tacos featuring unusual meats like beef tongue, fried pork skin, and spicy chorizo. Large, handmade corn tortillas are traditional.
These are just a few highlights of distinct local varieties across Mexico’s vivid regional taco scene.
Taco Culture in the United States
While born in Mexico, tacos have become an essential part of cuisine in the neighboring United States as well. Some elements defining the role of tacos in American food culture include:
The fusing of Texas and Mexican tastes along the border spawned popular taco creations like the crispy shell, ground beef fillings, and abundant cheese.
California put its own spin on tacos with innovations like fish tacos and Korean-Mexican fusion, thanks to its cultural diversity and abundance of fresh produce.
Taco trucks and stands serve Americanized Mexican fast food in cities across the U.S. and often stay open late into the night.
National fast food chains like Taco Bell, Del Taco, and Taco Cabana have made tacos a convenient option from coast to coast.
In recent decades, an emphasis on authentic ingredients and recipes has surfaced at restaurants from Los Angeles to New York.
While America has embraced its own taco styles, traditional Mexican flavors continue gaining admirers as well.
Mexican immigration and globalization of cuisine has spread tacos to many countries beyond Mexico and the U.S. Some places gaining taco trends include:
- Canada (Baja-style fish tacos are popular)
- Japan (with fusion twists like tempura shrimp)
- Australia (fast casual chains and food trucks)
- Korea (Korean-Mexican fusion tacos are a street food)
- China (Taco Bell and Tex-Mex chains are emerging)
Additionally, international chains like Taco Bell or local restaurants bring tacos to nearly every continent. While taste preferences vary, the taco’s appeal spans the globe.
Significance of Tacos in Mexican Cuisine
Within the culinary tradition of Mexico, tacos hold special significance:
- They represent indigenous ingredients and cooking (corn, chiles) adapted with global influences.
- They are an iconic national street food and comfort meal beloved across economic classes.
- They express Mexico’s regional diversity through distinct ingredients and styles.
- They embody culinary creativity with endless filling possibilities and combinations.
- They are an easy, efficient food on-the-go when folded into tortillas.
While tacos may seem simple at first glance, they encapsulate the passion, history, and ingenuity of Mexican food culture.
In conclusion, tacos have no single founder but rather developed gradually over centuries through the convergence of indigenous cooking methods, Spanish ingredients, and diverse regional influences across Mexico. The taco’s evolution continues today as chefs innovate with new fillings and global flavors while respecting tradition. Over time, tacos have become much more than just a popular street food, emerging as a powerful symbol of Mexico’s vibrant culinary heritage.