From the Middle East to Mexico
I was sitting on a bench in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico eating a classic taco al pastor as I observed the woman at the cart I bought it from continuing to make more.
The preparation of the meat appeared oddly familiar to me as the stacked cylinder of meat slowly rotated against the heat of an open oven. I reminisced about trips I had taken to the Middle East where I thoroughly enjoyed my fair share of shawarma wraps– a street food found throughout the region.
I pondered the parallels between the two scenarios and concluded that these similarities had to be more than a coincidence, but I wondered, how could two cultures that differed so drastically share something so central to their identities.
Lebanese Migration to Mexico
My curiosity prompted me to figure out why these two street foods from distant regions were so similar, I found a BBC article that explained how the Middle Eastern tradition was brought to Mexico with a wave of Lebanese migrants in the early 20th century during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (Alfaro-Velcamp, 2007; BBC, 2015).
Today, there are approximately 800,000 Lebanese living in Mexico, a population size that is not significant in comparison to the country’s total population of over 127 million people (CIA World Factbook Mexico, 2018). The small Lebanese population makes the substantial influence they have had on Mexican culture intriguing. The cultures of the two countries differ drastically in their dominant religions, languages, and ways of life, but they are brought together by the commonality of food that was developed through living in a shared space.
Lebanese immigrants established a close community once arriving in Mexico, presenting themselves as born capitalists to avoid the threat of being exploited (Pilcher, 2008). Upon their arrival, they opened restaurants selling tacos arabes, a fusion of the Mexican taco with ingredients and cooking styles they were comfortable with, which was the beginning of tacos al pastor (BBC, 2015).
Tacos arabes were Lebanese immigrants take on traditional tacos, which were then further adapted by Mexican natives who replaced the lamb that was used with pork, an ingredient more palatable to them.
Comparing Tacos al Pastor to Shawarma
The ingredients of tacos al pastor and shawarma parallel each other but they are almost entirely different. The shawarma I enjoyed in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates was made of lamb, beef, or chicken, meats that are common throughout the Middle East.
It was served on pita, made from wheat with a simple salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and onions with garlic and chili sauce drizzled over top. While the taco al pastor I ate in Mexico was prepared with pork, which is not consumed in the Middle East because it is prohibited by Islam– the dominant religion in the region. Other ingredients used in tacos include pineapple, coriander, and spices, served on top of a tortilla made from maize, all of which are native to Mexico, likewise, shawarma is also comprised of ingredients that are found in the Middle East.
Both are composed of similar items, consisting of protein, starch, spices, sauces, and fruits or vegetables, however, the specific ingredients in each are different. The force of popular preference by the public for tastes that represent their own culture and roots is seen through the choice of ingredients found in tacos al pastor and shawarma.
Finding Common Ground
The most ironic aspect of the fusion that took place between Mexico and the Middle East is the countries’ religions. Both cultures are strongly guided by their religions, those being Islam in Lebanon and Catholicism in Mexico. While they both derive from Abrahamic roots, each one constitutes different ways of determining gender spheres, dietary guidelines, and social norms. It is suspected that Mexico’s cultural ties to its dominant religion exerted pressure on immigrant groups from the Middle East, which could have caused them to hide their true religion from the public to assimilate (Pilcher, 2008).
The closeness and ingroup mentality associated with Muslim culture fostered the ability of Lebanese immigrants to establish themselves in Mexico, which aided in their ability to influence Mexico’s culture.
The popularity of tacos al pastor in Mexico is remarkable, however, the origin and history of the dish are unknown by many (BBC, 2015). Many native Mexicans believe that tacos al pastor is rooted in the history of Mexico, even though the dish was born less than a century ago. It evolved through a dialogue between the preferences by consumers and aspiring restaurants that were trying to appeal to the public’s tastes to gain customers and stay in business (BBC, 2015).
Mexican natives showed disinterest in tacos arabes when traditional Middle Eastern ingredients like lamb were used, however, once the meat was switched to pork, which was widely consumed in the country, the popularity of these new tacos rapidly increased. The preparation of the meat remained the same, cooks continued to roast towers of meat near an open flame, carving off pieces as needed, which is the aspect that bridges the two dishes the most.
Tacos al pastor and shawarma are central to Lebanese and Mexican national culture and identity. While the concept of tacos al pastor does not come from the roots of Mexico it has become a symbol of the country that is identified globally.
The incorporation of a blend of native ingredients with cooking styles from faraway lands perfectly embodies the world’s history but uses Mexico as the unifying point. Both dishes demonstrate how national identities are evolving through the use of elements from old and new influences to create cultures that bring populations together.
Cuisine is central to all cultures, it can marry populations that would otherwise not relate, and it provides people with the feeling of comfort and belonging while allowing them to expand their ideas to fit the new norms surrounding them. Even people from backgrounds as different as Mexico and Lebanon can find common ground through food.