It’s cinco de mayo today which calls for big celebrations in Mexico and in the more recent years, in the US. I must say, I should’ve become a food historian because I am constantly fascinated and intrigued at the overlap and fusions of culture through food. Weeks back, I came across an article that talked about the influence of the Middle East in Mexican cuisine and I was fascinated. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, when the Ottoman empire was crumbling and it was the beginning of World War I, a lot of Lebanese, Syrian and other Middle Eastern migrants left their homes for Mexico. Naturally, they brought a lot of their culture with them which included their food.
When they settled in their new home in Puebla, a city a couple of hours away from the capital and then eventually gravitated towards Mexico City in the 1930s, they began selling shawerma calling them tacos arabes or Arab tacos which gave birth to “Al Pastor”. The recipes for spit-roasted lamb were brought over to Mexico, the lamb was switched for beef, and eventually pork, and pitas for tortillas. Even the word “pastor” means “the way of the shepherd” because of the original use of lamb.
By the 1960s when the children of these immigrants began to grow older and open restaurants a great fusion happened in the culinary world of Mexico. They began taking the flavors and techniques of cooking and merging them with flavors of Mexico.
Although the original shawarma has been modified to adapt to the locals palettes, the original technique of putting a piece of meat vertical next to the flames and spinning it to cook and then shaving pieces of the marinated meat to make it famous street food in Mexico and in the Middle East, has not changed. To dive even further in food history, the word shawarma is derived from the Turkish word çevirme, which means “turning.” Today, in Puebla you can still see restaurants serving tacos arabes and use a bread similar to pita bread called Arab bread.
Writing up this post made me think about my own blog, a “Modern Middle Eastern food company”. I am today where the Mexican Arab children were in the 60s. I am the child of immigrant parents that wants to creatively merge flavors of the Middle East with the flavors that I grew up with in good old New Jersey.
In this post I served falafel but instead of presenting it in a wrap I decided to make it a “Taco Arabe” and give a nod to the Arab Mexicans.
As a wanna be food historian, I can’t help but read about the history of food but also pay attention to the present. With the largest refugee crisis in our lifetime happening before our eyes, I cannot help but wonder what will happen to the culinary world in decades to come. As Middle Eastern refugees begin to settle in Germany, Sweden, Greece, the US, Canada and beyond they will bring their culture and their food and merge it together with the local flavors. Call it looking at the glass half full, but I am excited to see what culinary creations are going to happen for the years.