Gratitudes to Ottomans for their role in Mexican taco

Ottoman Empire influence on distant lands, origins of famous Mexican taco

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

In the article published by Swedish Metro daily entitled “Thank the Ottoman Empire for that taco you are eating,” the relation between Mexican traditional “taco al pastor” and the Ottoman Empire cuisine is brought to light with references to anthropological and linguistic references.

One might think that Mexican food represents an entirely different cuisine than Middle-East’s in general and Ottoman Empire in particular as it is based on totally a different culture and geography. However, if you think these dishes could be linked somehow, then you are on the right track.

The similarities between Mexican food and Ottoman dishes show themselves in various ways. You could just enter a Mexican restaurant, and ask them to guide you with their cooking process of traditional Mexican street food, taco al pastor. (If you are not let in the kitchen, it’s fine, let us be your guide). What you will see is a turning spit of pork, some chili and onions with dripping fat. You will get your taco al pastor as you place some of the mix into a tortilla, the final step.

A similar story goes for shawarma of Jerusalem. It is cooked by a vertical rotisserie of beef, not pork this time, next to fire. Finally, shave some off into a pita, and all is left to enjoy your shawarma.

Anthropological studies shed some light on the connection between the “traditional” Mexican food and Ottoman cuisine. “Shawarma is very, very interesting,” says Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist. It should also be noted that the word “shawarma” finds its roots in Turkish word “çevirme.” Furthermore, the term “al pastor” means “in the style of the shepherd,” a reference to the Middle Eastern version of the food which is cooked with lamb.

It is quite easy to find different forms of shawarma in regions where Ottoman Empire ruled once. The anthropological side of the story is not limited to linguistic affinity. Tens of thousands of people left Ottoman for Mexico between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “People came from as far as Egypt. I found some people [who] came from Iraq,” says history professor Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp at Sonoma State University  

“The majority came from the Levant, as it was called during that time, which is now modern-day Lebanon and Syria,” said Alfaro-Velcamp.

Still, all these Ottoman influence doesn’t make taco less Mexican. The cuisine is being reproduced and transformed by every generation, and make it their own in time. Tradition and culture will always remain as the main ingredients.