Tacos: how to make them, where to eat them, and why it's time to join the new Mexican wave

Tacos
Tacos, laden with fragrant fillings and chilli-hot pickles, are causing a buzz in Britain. Diana Henry meets the chefs who are putting modern Mexican food on the menu... Credit: Haarala Hamilton

This piece was first published in March 2017 and has been republished as a BBC Good Food survey reports that over half of the 5,000 people questioned said Mexican food is now their favourite international cusine. 

It’s my first trip to Mexico and I’m standing in a market in Oaxaca, a beautiful city 300 miles from the capital. Despite being a cook, I don’t recognise much of what’s on sale. There are fruits I’ve never seen, a drink made from fermented pineapple, bundles of rust-red chillies and baskets of spiced dried grasshoppers.

Everywhere I smell corn – it’s the sweet scent that permeates Mexico – and in the middle of all this a vendor clutches a bunch of pearlised balloons. They shimmer. I wonder if this is what is meant by magical realism. If the balloon vendor started to float heavenwards I wouldn’t be surprised.

Mexican food is enchanting but here we’ve mainly experienced it in Americanised fast-food form. Its rise has been touted but never quite materialised. Things seem, though, to be changing – and all because of a snack you eat with your hands.

London is abuzz with tacos. If you’ve only had tacos in the “hard shell” form that comes in kits with metallic-tasting chilli sauce, you need to take a leap of faith. Tacos are tortillas; flatbreads made from wheat or, more commonly, corn, wrapped around fillings as varied as scallops, avocado and coriander or melting short ribs, pickled onions and spiced salt.

If you live in London and care about food, then three restaurants will be on your “to-go” list right now: Breddos Tacos, El Pastor and Temper. The first two are taquerias – tacos is their main business; Temper, while headlining as a barbecue joint, has plenty of tacos on the menu.

True tacos are tortillas; flatbreads made from wheat or, more commonly, corn. Here, filled with pork carnitas by Gizzi Erskine Credit: The Gaztronome

Restaurateurs Sam and Eddie Hart of El Pastor would like to do for Mexican food what they’ve done for Spanish food (their Barrafina restaurants – specialising in tapas – are among the most loved and garlanded in the capital).

We’ll never be able to get all the ingredients needed for Mexican ‘fine dining’ but we can certainly have the casual stuffThomasina Miers

“Mexico is big now for several reasons,” says Sam Hart. “Thomasina Miers’s group of restaurants, Wahaca, has been introducing us to accessible Mexican food for the last decade. There are three Mexican restaurants on the list of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants, so Mexican food is getting serious attention… Plus, René Redzepi [the acclaimed chef and godfather of New Nordic cooking] has fallen in love with Mexican food and is about to open a temporary place there.”

Miers herself points out that Mexicans have increasingly valued their culinary heritage during the past 10 years instead of seeing it as inferior to French or Italian: “They’ve been reclaiming their food, just as Scandinavians have been reclaiming theirs.”

You'll need to practice before making perfect homemade tacos Credit: Haarala Hamilton

Even if you’re eating them in a restaurant instead of from a food truck, tacos are casual. They also fit in with the way we dine now: tacos mean lots of different dishes on a range of small (and literally edible) plates.

The fillings may seem like the main deal but the quality of the tortilla is paramount. Both El Pastor and Breddos Tacos grind their own corn every day, a complicated process that involves nixtamalising (soaking, cooking and hulling) the grain.

This is not a purist approach – corn ­tortillas need to be soft and pliable but go stale quickly. Making your own ensures freshness, though you’ll need practice.

Corn absorbs water more slowly than wheat, so until you get used to it you will find your tortillas are either too dry and crumbly or that the dough is too wet and sticky. Knead the dough and give it time to absorb the water you have added before adding any more. Once you’ve mastered them, try these recipes below from Breddos Tacos and Gizzi Erskine. Or simply add fried chicken, beans, avocado and tomato salsa, sour cream and pickled jalapeños for a quick and zingy weeknight treat.

Breddos takes an LA approach: ­Korean tacos, tacos topped with sweet potatoes and feta, even tacos with foie gras. This cross-fertilisation began when Lebanese immigrants arrived in Mexico in the Fifties. They served tacos – called tacos Árabes – topped with ­caramelised pork that had been cooked on a vertical spit (just like Lebanese lamb shawarma).

At Breddos, tacos come with prawns and Sichuan pepper, or mushrooms with Thai spices and fish sauce. It makes no sense to damn these as inauthentic, as tacos have been developing this way for years in California. It’s just the way food works.

Can the Mexican wave continue? “I’ve been waiting for this,” says Miers, excitedly. “Slowly, it’s gained momentum. We’ll never be able to get all the ingredients needed for Mexican ‘fine dining’ but we can certainly have the casual stuff.”

So bring me a taco filled with hot pork, chillies and cold shaved pineapple, a beer and a juicy lime.

Buen ­provecho, amigos.

How to make Breddos Tacos’ corn tortillas

Just-pressed tortillas Credit: Kris Kirkham

A taco press makes life much simpler for these, or you can use shop-bought corn tortillas for our recipes below. 


MAKES

25 tortillas (of around 12-15cm)

INGREDIENTS

  • 160g masa harina (Mexican corn flour), or as needed
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 100ml hot water, or as needed
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed oil

METHOD

  1. Mix the masa harina and salt in a bowl and stir in the water slowly while mixing the dough with your hand. Add the oil and knead to form a smooth dough. If it is too wet, add more masa harina; if it feels dry, add water. Rest at room temperature for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  2. Divide the dough into 25 equal-sized balls.
  3. Cut a freezer bag in half to create two square sections and place onto a hard surface or on the bottom of your tortilla press. Add a ball of masa then place the other freezer bag square over the top of the dough. Either push your hand down firmly on the dough or use a rolling pin to create a 12-15cm circular tortilla, or if you are using a taco press, press down using the crank lever. Remove the plastic squares and set the tortilla aside.
  4. Repeat, separating each pressed tortilla with a square of baking paper.
  5. Heat a heavy-based pan and add the tortillas – cook for one minute on each side, or until they soufflé slightly. Remove after a minute or two and wrap in a tea towel to keep warm.

Breddos Baja fish tacos

Credit: Kris Kirkham

SERVES

4

INGREDIENTS

For the batter

  • 200g rice flour
  • 100g plain flour
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • ½ tsp dried oregano
  • 200ml cold sparkling water or light beer 


For the fish

  • 500ml rapeseed oil, for frying
  • 1 large pollack fillet, skinned and pin boned, cut into 8 evenly sized rectangular pieces
  • 100g rice flour

For the aioli (makes 250g)

  • 2 small garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 large free-range egg yolks
  • 
½ tsp English or Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 250ml sunflower or rapeseed oil 


For the pico de gallo (400g)

  • 300g ripe vine tomatoes
  • 2 medium red onions, diced
  • ½ bunch of coriander, finely chopped
  • ½ jalapeño chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 
1 tsp sugar
  • Juice of 2-3 limes
  • 1 tsp rapeseed oil 


To serve

  • 8 corn tortillas
  • ½ head white cabbage, finely chopped
  • 1 jalapeño chilli, finely sliced
  • A handful of coriander, leaves picked
  • 4 limes, halved

METHOD

  1. First make the lime aioli. Crush the garlic to a paste with a pinch of sea salt, then thoroughly combine in a bowl with the egg yolks, mustard, lime juice and some pepper.
  2. In a slow, steady stream, whisk the oil into the egg mix, a few drops at a time to start with, then in small dashes, whisking in each addition so it is emulsified before adding the next. By the time you’ve added all the oil, you should have a thick, glossy, wobbly aioli that holds its shape. Taste and add more salt, pepper, mustard or lime juice if you like. If it seems too thick, stir in a tablespoon or two of warm water.
  3. To make the pico de gallo, quarter the tomatoes. Remove the cores, then dice tomatoes into 5mm cubes and put them into a large bowl. Add the diced red onions with the coriander and jalapeños. Add salt and pepper and taste. Once you’re happy with the flavour, mix in the sugar. Add lime juice, to taste, and the oil. Stir to combine and taste again – it should be salty, sweet, zingy and slightly spicy. If you like your salsas hot, replace the jalapeño with a Scotch bonnet or habanero.
  4. When you’re ready to prepare the fish, heat the rapeseed oil in a deep, heavy-based pan to 190C.
  5. Make the batter by mixing together the flours, egg, baking powder, salt, chilli powder and oregano. Slowly pour in the sparkling water or beer and whisk until you have a batter-like consistency; ignore any lumps.
  6. Dip one piece of fish at a time into the rice flour. Using tongs, dip the fish into the batter and then gently place in the hot oil. Be sure to put the fish into the oil away from your body in case the oil splashes. Repeat with three of the other pieces of fish and cook for four minutes.
  7. Take the first four pieces out of the oil and leave to drain on kitchen paper. Repeat with the other four.
  8. Assemble your tacos by warming the tortillas, then placing a dollop of aioli on them, followed by the fish, cabbage, some pico de gallo, a couple of slices of jalapeño and some coriander. Sprinkle with chilli salt, if using, and add a squeeze of lime juice. 

Breddos Tacos' Yucatán-style chicken with mango habanero salsa

Credit: Kris Kirkham

SERVES

4

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tbsp orange juice
  • 2 tbsp allspice
  • 4 tbsp pineapple juice
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • 2 habanero chillies, stems removed
  • 2 jalapeño chillies, stems removed
  • 3 tbsp rapeseed oil
  • 5 boneless chicken thighs, skin on

For the mango, lime and habanero salsa (makes 500g)

  • 1 mango, cut into small cubes
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 1 habanero chilli
  • A handful of coriander leaves, chopped
  • A handful of mint leaves, chopped
  • A pinch of sea salt
  • A pinch of sugar 1 tsp olive oil

To serve

  • 12 corn tortillas
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 4 tbsp coriander
  • Pickled habaneros, to taste
  • 4 tbsp sour cream
  • 4 limes, quartered

METHOD

  1. Mix the marinade ingredients (apart from the chicken) in a blender, then pulse to a smooth paste. Score the chicken thighs and rub the marinade into them. Place in a non-reactive container, cover and marinate for at least six hours in a refrigerator.
  2. Fire up your hob and put an ovenproof pan or griddle on it with a slick of oil. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Put the chicken thighs on the griddle, skin side down, and cook for six to seven minutes, occasionally moving them to ensure they don’t stick. Flip them over, cover the griddle or pan with tin foil and place in the oven for 20 minutes or until they’re cooked through, then remove the cover and put back into the oven for another 10 minutes. Take the chicken out and leave to rest.
  3. Meanwhile, warm your tortillas in a dry pan and mix all the ingredients together for the salsa.
  4. When the chicken has cooled a little, shred it with two forks into a bowl. Squeeze the juice of a lime over it. To assemble the tacos, take a tortilla and put in a big pinch of chicken, a teaspoon of the salsa, a pinch of coriander, a couple of pickled habaneros, a teaspoon of sour cream on top, and a squeeze of lime. 

Recipes from Breddos Tacos: The Cookbook (Quadrille, £15)

Gizzi Erskine’s pork carnitas

Credit: The Gaztronome

SERVES

4

INGREDIENTS

For the carnitas

  • 1kg boned-out pork shoulder, fat and skin on, cut into large chunks
  • 3 tsp cooking oil
  • 500ml fresh white chicken stock
  • 1 bulb garlic, cut in half horizontally
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 strips orange rind
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ tsp coriander seeds
  • 6 sage leaves
  • 3 oregano sprigs

For the pink pickled onions

  • 50ml white wine vinegar
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced

For the pineapple salsa

  • 4 slices of fresh pineapple cut horizontally, each slice
  • 8mm thick olive oil
  • ½ red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • Small bunch of coriander, finely chopped

To serve

  • 12 small corn tortillas
  • 1 avocado, peeled, stoned and finely chopped, lime squeezed over and sprinkled with salt

METHOD

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas 3. Season the meat. Heat the oil in a frying pan, then add the meat in batches and brown well, transferring each batch to a cast-iron casserole once browned.
  2. Pour the stock over the meat and then add the rest of the carnitas ingredients. Pop the lid on and roast for three hours, stirring every so often, then remove the casserole from the oven. The meat will be so soft that you are able to put a spoon through it. Remove the aromatics and then break the meat up with a spoon.
  3. Return the casserole to the oven, this time with the lid off, and bake for 15 minutes.
  4. Remove from the oven, stir to break up more of the meat, then return to the oven and repeat this every 15 minutes for one hour.
  5. By the end of the cooking time, the liquid will have reduced and the meat will have broken down into soft, feathery, pulled-pork pieces and be frying gently in its own fat. You now have carnitas. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.
  6. Meanwhile, for the onions, place the vinegar, sugar and salt in a saucepan and cook over a low heat until they melt together. Bring to the boil, then pour over the sliced red onion in a bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to macerate for at least two hours at room temperature.
  7. For the pineapple salsa, heat a griddle pan over a high heat. Rub the pineapple slices with oil and grill for two to three minutes on each side.
  8. Transfer to a plate and leave until cool enough to handle, then trim off the skin and remove the core. Slice the pineapple into tiny cubes and place in a bowl. Add the onion, chilli, lime juice, coriander and any juices that may have been released from the pineapple. Mix well. Leave for 20 minutes.
  9. Once the carnitas are cooked, heat your tortillas in a dry frying pan. To build, lay a tortilla on a plate, top with a large spoonful of carnitas and then some pink pickled onions, pineapple salsa and avocado.

Recipe from Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite by Gizzi Erskine (Mitchell Beazley, £25)