Taco Origins: The Etymology and History Behind This Iconic Mexican Dish

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 27, 2022

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A taco is a traditional Mexican dish composed of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling. A taco can be made with a variety of fillings, including beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables and cheese, allowing for great versatility and variety. A taco is generally eaten without utensils and is often accompanied by garnishes such as salsa, avocado or guacamole, cilantro (coriander), tomatoes, minced meat, onions and lettuce.

Let’s look at the history of tacos and how they’re made. In this guide, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about tacos, from the dish’s origins to how to make them at home. I’ll even share some of my favorite taco recipes.

What is a taco

Get Your Hands on This: What Tacos Really Are

Tacos are a unique and traditional Mexican food consisting of a small hand-sized tortilla made from corn or wheat, topped with a filling. The tortilla is then folded around the filling and eaten by hand. The filling can vary from meat to vegetables, beans, cheese, and more. The combinations are endless, making tacos a versatile and customizable dish.

Why Are Tacos Eaten by Hand?

Eating tacos by hand helps create a communal atmosphere. It’s a social experience where everyone can gather around a taco station, laying out different toppings and fillings, and letting everyone create their own unique taco. Eating with your hands also helps to enhance the flavors of the taco and creates a more intimate connection with the food.

What Makes Tacos a Popular Food?

Tacos are a popular food because they are easy to make, delicious, and can be enjoyed by everyone. They are also a great way to bring people together and create a fun and relaxed atmosphere. Tacos are not just a meal, but an experience that can be shared with friends and family.

Exploring the World of Tacos: A Guide to Different Types

When it comes to tacos, meat is the star of the show. The most popular types of meat used in tacos are pork and beef. Chefs often marinate the meat before grilling it to perfection. Some of the most famous taco styles include:

  • Al Pastor: Originated in Mexico, this taco features pork shoulder that is marinated in a mix of spices and then cooked on a vertical spit. The meat is thinly sliced and served with cilantro, onions, and a fiery sauce.
  • Barbacoa: This taco consists of beef that is simmered for hours until it becomes tender and juicy. The meat is then shredded and served with a rich sauce and chopped onions.
  • Birria: This taco is a specialty of the state of Jalisco in Mexico. It features goat meat that is slow-cooked until it falls off the bone. The meat is then served in a bowl of spicy broth and topped with cilantro and onions.

The Ultimate Toppings

Toppings are what make tacos unique and delicious. Here are some of the most popular toppings:

  • Cilantro: This herb adds a fresh and zesty flavor to tacos.
  • Onions: Chopped or sliced, onions are a staple in most taco recipes.
  • Salsa: A spicy sauce made with tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers.
  • Guacamole: A creamy and flavorful sauce made with mashed avocados, onions, and lime juice.
  • Queso fresco: A crumbly and mild cheese that is often sprinkled on top of tacos.

The Different Styles of Tacos

Tacos come in multiple styles, each with its own unique features. Here are some of the most popular styles:

  • Traditional: This style of taco is usually prepared with a soft corn tortilla and filled with meat, onions, and cilantro.
  • Grilled: The meat is cooked on a griddle or grill, giving it a smoky and charred flavor.
  • Steamed: The tortillas are placed on a steamer to make them soft and pliable.
  • Super: This style of taco is an alternative to the traditional taco. It consists of a large flour tortilla that is filled with multiple ingredients and toppings.
  • De Asada: This taco features thinly sliced pieces of beef that are cooked on a griddle or grill.
  • De Cabeza: This taco is made with the head of a cow, including the cheeks, tongue, and eyes. The meat is simmered until it becomes tender and flavorful.
  • De Lengua: This taco is made with beef tongue that is cooked until it becomes soft and tender.
  • De Carnitas: This taco features pork that is cooked until it becomes crispy and fatty. The meat is then pulled apart into small pieces.

The Spicy Factor

For those who love a strong and fiery flavor, there are plenty of spicy tacos to choose from. Here are some of the spiciest taco styles:

  • Cabeza: This taco is made with the head of a cow, which is known for its strong and rich flavor.
  • Pastor: The marinade used to prepare the pork for this taco is usually quite spicy.
  • Birria: The broth used to serve this taco is often made with a mix of chili peppers, giving it a fiery kick.
  • Barbacoa: The sauce used to serve this taco is often made with a mix of chili peppers, giving it a spicy and rich flavor.

The Short and Long of It

Tacos come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some of the different sizes of tacos you might find:

  • Mini tacos: These are small tacos that are usually sold in sets of three or four.
  • Street tacos: These are small tacos that are sold by street vendors in Mexico.
  • Regular tacos: These are the most common size of taco and are usually made with a 6-inch tortilla.
  • Large tacos: These are bigger than regular tacos and are usually made with a 10-inch tortilla.

The Making of Tacos

Preparing tacos is a labor of love. Here are the steps involved in making the perfect taco:

  • Start with the meat: Depending on the type of taco you are making, you will need to prepare the meat by marinating, grilling, or simmering it.
  • Prepare the toppings: Chop the onions, cilantro, and any other toppings you plan to use.
  • Warm the tortillas: Heat the tortillas on a griddle or in the microwave until they are warm and pliable.
  • Add the meat: Place the meat on the tortilla.
  • Add the toppings: Add the chopped onions, cilantro, and any other toppings you plan to use.
  • Finish with sauce: Drizzle salsa, guacamole, or any other sauce you like on top of the taco.

The Synonymous Taco

Tacos are synonymous with Mexico and are enjoyed all over the world. There are hundreds of different types of tacos, each with its own unique flavor and style. Whether you prefer your tacos spicy, mild, or somewhere in between, there is a taco out there for everyone. So next time you’re in the mood for a delicious and satisfying meal, be sure to try a taco!

The Tasty Tale of Taco’s Etymology

The word “taco” has a fascinating etymology. It comes from the Nahuatl word ‘tlahco’, which means “half or in the middle”, referring to the way it is formed. This traditional dish is a type of Mexican food that is typically served as a handheld meal. The dish is made of a corn or wheat tortilla that is filled with various ingredients, such as beef, pork, seafood, rice, egg, or vegetables. The filling is usually spicy and garnished with salsa, cilantro, onions, and lime.

History of Taco

The taco is a popular dish that originated in Mexico and has been a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries. The dish was first popularized in the 18th century in the silver mines of Mexico. Miners would wrap gunpowder in paper and place it in a small tortilla to eat during their lunch break. The dish became so popular that it spread throughout Mexico and eventually made its way to the United States.

Types of Tacos

There are different types of tacos, each with its own unique style and flavor. Some of the most typical types of tacos include:

  • Carnitas: Made with marinated pork that is slow-cooked until it is tender and juicy.
  • Carne Asada: Made with thin slices of grilled beef that are marinated in citrus and spices.
  • Fish: Made with seafood, such as shrimp or fish, that is battered and fried or grilled.
  • Vegetarian: Made with beans, cheese, and vegetables.
  • Bowl: A taco bowl is an alternative to the traditional form, where the ingredients are arranged in a bowl instead of a tortilla.

How Tacos are Prepared and Served

Tacos can be prepared in many different ways, depending on the region and the restaurant. Some restaurants offer a choice of hard or soft tortillas, while others serve tacos on a bed of rice or in a bowl. Tacos can be served at a sit-down restaurant, a food stand, or a food cart.

The Famous Fold

The way a taco is folded is an art form in itself. The most popular way to fold a taco is to take one side of the tortilla and fold it over the filling, then fold the other side over to create a U-shape. This is known as the traditional taco fold. Another popular way to fold a taco is to fold the tortilla in half, creating a half-moon shape.

Notes on Extreme Tacos

For those who like their tacos extra spicy, some restaurants offer extreme tacos that are garnished with habanero peppers or other spicy ingredients. These tacos are not for the faint of heart and should be approached with caution.

The Fascinating Story of the Taco

The history of the taco is a long and complex one. The actual origin of the taco is not clear, but it is believed to have started in Mexico in ancient times. The indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico are thought to have invented the tortilla, which is the main element of the taco. The tortilla was made from nixtamal, a mixture of corn and water, which was then cooked and flattened into small pieces. The advent of the Spanish in Mexico brought new cooking methods and ingredients, which were combined with the indigenous cuisine to produce a wide variety of dishes, including the taco.

The Arrival of the Taco in the United States

The taco was first introduced to the United States in 1905, when Mexican migrants were coming in to work on railroads and other jobs. They brought their delicious food with them, and the taco became incredibly popular as a street food since it was highly portable and cheap. The term “taco” is thought to refer to the small pieces of tortilla that were used to carry the food.

The Many Varieties of Tacos

When people think of tacos, they usually picture a hard or soft shell filled with beef or pork, garnished with lettuce, cheese, and sour cream. However, there are many different types of tacos, each with their own unique style and ingredients. Here are some of the most common traditional variations:

  • Tacos de carne asada: This type of taco is typically made with grilled beef, and is commonly found in the northern states of Mexico. The meat is thinly sliced and cooked over a vertical grill, and is served with a variety of toppings such as onions, cilantro, and lime.
  • Tacos al pastor: This taco is filled with seasoned pork that has been marinated in a mixture of spices and chiles. The meat is then cooked on a vertical spit, and is typically served with pineapple, onions, and cilantro.
  • Tacos de adobada: Similar to al pastor, this taco is filled with seasoned pork that has been marinated in a red, spicy sauce. It is typically served with onions, cilantro, and a spicy salsa.
  • Tacos de canasta: Also known as “sweaty tacos,” these are small, soft tacos that are typically filled with a simple mixture of ground beef or pork. They are called “sweaty” because they are often steamed in a metal basket, which can make them incredibly greasy.
  • Tacos dorados: These are crispy tacos that are filled with a variety of different ingredients, such as potatoes, chicken, or beef. They are typically fried until golden brown, and are served with lettuce, cheese, and salsa.

Taco Fillings and Ingredients

The filling of a taco can be composed of a number of different ingredients, depending on the region and tradition. Here are some common taco fillings:

  • Beef: Ground beef is a common filling for tacos, but other cuts of beef such as carne asada or barbacoa can also be used.
  • Pork: Pork is another popular filling for tacos, and can be seasoned in a variety of ways.
  • Chicken: Grilled or shredded chicken is a common taco filling, and is often seasoned with spices such as cumin and chili powder.
  • Vegetables: For a vegetarian option, try filling your tacos with sautéed vegetables such as peppers, onions, and mushrooms.
  • Pickled vegetables: Pickled vegetables such as onions, jalapeños, and carrots are a common garnish for tacos, and can add a spicy kick to your dish.
  • Salsas: Salsas are an essential part of any taco, and can be made with a variety of ingredients such as tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro.
  • Cheese: Cheese is often used as a garnish for tacos, and can be shredded or crumbled.
  • Sour cream: Sour cream is another common garnish for tacos, and can help balance out the spiciness of the dish.

Taco Shells and Tortillas

The type of shell or tortilla used for a taco can also vary depending on the tradition. Here are some common options:

  • Corn tortillas: Corn tortillas are a traditional option for tacos, and are typically smaller and thinner than flour tortillas. They are commonly used in Mexican cuisine.
  • Flour tortillas: Flour tortillas are a popular option in the United States, particularly in the southern and western regions. They are typically larger and softer than corn tortillas.
  • Hard shells: Hard shells are a popular option for tacos in the United States, and are typically made from corn tortillas that have been fried until crispy.
  • Soft shells: Soft shells are a common option for tacos in Mexico, and are typically made from corn or flour tortillas that have been heated until soft and pliable.

No matter what type of taco you prefer, there is no denying that this dish offers a wide variety of flavors and ingredients to suit any taste. So next time you come across a taco, take a moment to appreciate the tradition and history that has gone into creating this beloved food.

Non-Traditional Tacos: A Fusion of Flavors

Tacos are a versatile dish that can be customized to fit any taste preference. From vegan to bacon-filled, the possibilities are endless. Here are some non-traditional variations that are sure to appeal to any palate:

Vegan and Vegetarian Delights

  • Cauliflower tacos: uses roasted cauliflower as the filling, topped with a smoky chipotle sauce and chopped veggies.
  • Tofu tacos: incorporates marinated tofu, bell peppers, and onions, topped with a sweet and spicy sauce.
  • Meatless tacos: filled with black beans, avocado, and veggies, topped with a grapefruit salsa.

Seafood Sensations

  • Shrimp tacos: uses grilled shrimp, topped with a tangy guacamole and a squeeze of lime.
  • Fish tacos: a classic dish that consists of fried fish, topped with a creamy sauce and chopped veggies.

Meat-Lovers Paradise

  • Bacon-wrapped tacos: brings together the love of bacon and tacos in a single dish.
  • Sausage tacos: uses breakfast sausage as the filling, topped with a fried egg and salsa.
  • Jamaican jerk chicken tacos: a fusion of Jamaican and Mexican cuisine, filled with spicy chicken and topped with a mango salsa.

Unique Forms

  • Biscuit tacos: takes a Southern twist on the classic taco by using a biscuit as the shell.
  • Fries tacos: uses French fries as the base, topped with meat, cheese, and salsa.

Frozen Innovations

  • Avocado tacos: uses frozen avocado slices as the shell, filled with veggies and topped with a creamy sauce.
  • Grapefruit tacos: fuses the flavors of grapefruit and fish, topped with a tangy salsa.

Tacos are the perfect meal for any time of day and can be filled with a variety of ingredients. Whether you’re a traditionalist or looking for a unique twist, there’s a taco out there for everyone. Now that you know about these non-traditional variations, it’s time to start experimenting with your own custom taco recipes.


So there you have it- everything you need to know about tacos. They’re a delicious Mexican food that you can enjoy as a meal or as a snack.

They’re a great way to enjoy some delicious food and have a fun social experience with friends and family. Plus, they’re pretty easy to make at home, especially if you have a guide like this one.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.