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The taco is a staple of Mexican food and has been adopted and adapted by people all over the world, namely right here in the United States. Surprisingly, however, the taco is a somewhat recent addition to Mexican culinary culture. Unlike much of Mexican food that dates to the time of the Aztecs, the taco has roots dating only to the 19th century. It is really a baby among the greats of one of our favorite cuisines.

The taquería — or taco shop — also played an important role in Mexican culture. Initially, taquerías were for the working class and women would take tacos to Mexico City to sell for income. Ultimately, this made Mexico City a hub of sorts for tacos, offering a variety of style that people could try.

The taco most likely arrived in the U.S. by way of migrant workers that sold them as street food in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. Traditional ingredients were hard to find in the U.S., which is a common story across all food culture, and the taco began to shift.

Fast forward to 1952 when Glen Bell opened a taco stand in San Bernardino, California, beginning the launch of the U.S. taco takeover. Ten years later, Bell opened the first Taco Bell. In just eight short years, Taco Bell went public with 325 restaurants nation-wide thus solidifying our love for this Mexican working-class street food.

Authentic Mexican tacos

Today, it is easy to find authentic Mexican food all across the country. It is also easier to make at home for those who wish to expand their recipe repertoire. But what exactly is an authentic taco? Typically, we eat our tacos on soft flour tortillas or hard corn shells that we purchase at the grocery store. However, the traditional wrapper is a soft corn tortilla made from scratch. If you are not that adventurous, you can steam store-bought corn tortillas or pan-fry them in a little oil until they become pliable.

Instead of the typical ground beef mixed with store-bought taco seasoning (which is mostly chili powder), authentic tacos are filled with flank steak that has been marinated in a combination of oregano, black pepper, cumin, paprika, lime juice and chili peppers. The meat is then grilled over high heat.

Traditional toppings are simple — onions and cilantro. That is it. Unlike the American counterpart that we fill — even overfill — with lettuce, tomato and cheese then top with sour cream and salsa.

Trendy tacos on Tuesday

If you grew up here in Southern Illinois, then you are likely very familiar with the ground beef taco topped with lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese. These graced the table of every kid in the Midwest through the 1980s and there is nothing wrong with these. They’re tasty and many of us like the familiarity of how Mom made them. But if “Taco Tuesday” is your favorite night of the week, then you may also be familiar with more ingredients and flavors. The tortilla — corn or flour — is just a vessel. Today, tacos are trendy. They come in all sizes from the tiny 4-inches to the traditional 8-inch. Anything bigger goes for other favorites like burritos and quesadillas.

The traditional corn tortilla is made from masa, water and a little salt. With the recent trend in tacos, some chefs are rethinking these ingredients and using vegetable juices in place of the water and filling them with vegetarian fare like roasted carrots and avocado. Others are replacing the masa with grains like buckwheat.

There are event breakfast “tacos” where the tortilla has been completely replaced by a pancake. The taco is definitely getting a makeover! Whether you are a purist, are adventurous, or just want what Mom used to make, the taco is sure to please.

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Niki Davis can be reached at rootedinfoods@gmail.com. You can find more recipes and food history on her blog Rooted In Foods at www.rootedinfoods.com.

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