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From Shawarma to Taco

posted on: Sep 25, 2019

By Katie Teague/Arab America Contributing Writer

There is no sandwich more iconic to the Arab world than the shawarma.  It’s a go-to meal for any time of day, all year round!  In fact, the components of the sandwich are so popular, they have transcended borders by making their way into other cultures; the Mexican culture is one of them.

Taco al pastor made its way into Mexico’s picture because of Lebanon. The taco itself is made with pork that has been roasted on a spit-shawarma style!  Specifically, the thin slices of meat are seasoned with spices, chili, onions, and sometimes pineapple, before being thrown onto the spit and shaved off into the taco. This way of cooking became popular with the arrival of Lebanese (Syrian) immigrants to Mexico in the 1900s, only then, a lamb was used instead of pork. According to the HuffPost:

“The English translation of al pastor is “in the style of the shepherd.” Mexican shepherds adapted the Lebanese style of spit-roasting lamb, using pork instead, and al pastor tacos became a beloved Mexican food.”

The components of the Arabian shawarma are incredibly popular worldwide. Cooking the meat on a spit is a process which found itself in Mexico, where it came to be known as the taco al pastor.  The taco itself is made with thinly sliced pork seasoned with spices, chili, onions, and sometimes pineapple.

Soon, restaurants sprang up with the same method of cooking, and when Mexico’s economy expanded after World War II, tacos al pastor found their way into the big cities.  Before long, the tacos popped up on menus in the United States.

The lineage of taco al pastor is quite fascinating; enough to catch Netflix’s attention.  They recently came out with a documentary series called Las Crónicas del Taco, which dives into the world of taco al pastor in the very first episode:

“The episode traces the Mexican variant back to Lebanese communities settling in Puebla after coming in through the ports of Veracruz, immigrating from the Ottoman Empire. Replacing the vertical spit of lamb meat with pork, second and third-generation Lebanese Mexicans began selling a fusion of shawarma and tacos, with tacos al pastor taking off in the mid-20th century.”

Mexico is not the only country who got its hands on shawarmas and made it their own.  Here are some other popular names for the traditional dish from around the world:

  • Iraq: gus
  • Greece: gyro
  • Turkey: döner kebab

Everyone who has adopted shawarma has found a way to make it their own while still maintaining the core characteristics of the classic.  As noted by Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist, in “This shows you the all-pervasive influence of the Ottoman Empire, because all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire eat shawarma even though they call it by different names.”

The story of taco al pastor poses one intriguing question: where will shawarmas find themselves next?  Given the delicious nature of the food originating from the Arab world, it’s unlikely that the style of cooking meat on a spit will ever disappear.  It should not come as a surprise if the global community continues to pass around the sandwich and develop new, tasty variations of a fantastic sandwich.