Cinco de Mayo- What is it really about?!
Cinco de Mayo
What is it really about?!
Cinco de Mayo, first and foremost, is not Mexican Independence day. Mexican Independence day is on September 16th.
Cinco de Mayo, which literally translates to the fifth of May in English, is the celebration of the Battle of Puebla. This was a historic battle where a hopelessly outnumbered group of Mexican soldiers were victorious against the invading French on May 5, 1862. This was the Mexican equivalent of our Battle of the Alamo in Texas, where the outnumbered force was far more formidable and successful than imagined.
The Texans did lose the battle of the Alamo, unfortunately, but their success in battle until defeated was remarkable. It became a sign that Texans were tough and not to be messed with as well as an inspiration to many in the days and battles to come. Likewise, the Mexicans repelled a larger and better-equipped army, but unlike the Alamo, the Mexican forces were victorious!
France attacked Mexico because Mexico was going through terrible times financially and was defaulting on loans borrowed from Britain, Spain, and France. All three of those countries sent part of their navy to blockade the main port city of Veracruz on the Gulf side of Mexico. Mexico was able to negotiate with Spain and Britain and both of those navies withdrew back home. The French were not as amicable and decided this was a prime opportunity to conquer and occupy Mexico while under the leadership of Napolean III.
Benito Juarez had just been elected President of Mexico the previous year and Mexico was suffering from an exceptional economic and social crisis in the aftermath of the War of Reform which was a civil war within Mexico. This war which almost left Mexico completely in ruins led to Mexico not being able to pay its debts and declaring a temporary moratorium on repaying its foreign debts.
With the financial defaults on debt, France had legal cause to declare war and seek repayment, but it was also in their plans to try and set up their first puppet government, a satellite base of operations, on the North American Continent. Concurrently during this time, the U.S. was engaged in its own civil war from 1861-1865. Napolean III knew that the U.S. was incapable of sending any aid south to assist Mexico and thought that Mexico was in such disrepair he could just march straight to the capital unimpeded. Furthermore, he had aspirations to reinforce the Confederate side of the Civil War and trade munitions for cotton.
Although Mexican forces were victorious at the Battle of Puebla, they did not stop France from reinforcing and succeeding in conquering Mexico. The day-long battle that saw Mexico victorious became a point of national pride when all the odds were stacked against them.
France learned its lesson, brought significantly more troops, and returned one year later in1863 to take Veracruz and march to Mexico City, which they did without too much resistance. France placed Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as the Emperor of Mexico who ruled until 1865.
President Lincoln ordered France to withdraw from Mexico at the end of the U.S. Civil War and sent military aid south to help Mexico expel the invading forces. Napolean III withdrew his forces, but Maximillian elected to stay in his place of leadership. Maximillian was captured and executed in 1867.
If the French had succeeded in 1862 instead of having to sail home and return in 1863 before taking control of Mexico City they very easily could have turned the tide of our Civil War in the favor of the Confederacy by supplying them with artillery and munitions. That would have changed the outcome of that war and history as we know it!
Although the Battle of Puebla was a short-lived success before the French did eventually invade and occupy Mexico, it was possibly one of the most important victories that shaped many years to come. One can only imagine what the world would be like today if France had retained a presence and authority in Mexico, possibly conquering it completely, as well as changing the tide of who won the Civil War and gained the power to steer policy and politics in the United States.
Why do we celebrate in the United States?
Cinco de Mayo was declared a Mexican holiday by Benito Juarez immediately after the battle which it is still to this day, but in Mexico, it is not celebrated as much as Independence Day is. In Veracruz and especially the town of Puebla, it is a very large celebration with parades, festivities, and a reenactment of the battle.
Much like St. Patrick’s Day, this is a holiday that is celebrated more in the U.S. than it is in its native country. In the same way that the Irish were looking to have a collective means of honoring and celebrating their heritage in a new country, many people in the Hispanic community began to adopt Cinco de Mayo as the day that celebrates that historic battle along with their national pride in general. This holiday really began to gain traction in the U.S. in the 1960’s.
The parallels between Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s day don’t stop there. Once alcohol was promoted and portrayed as necessary and synonymous with the holiday, both holidays gained popularity with a broader demographic of people than just the patriot participants. St. Patrick’s Day started as a religious holiday that never including drinking, so much so, that the bars would close in Ireland on that day. It became linked with Irish alcoholic beverages through marketing in the U.S. by beverage corporations. That marketing sent the new version of that holiday around the globe and even changed how Ireland itself celebrates the holiday it started.
Cinco de Mayo has suffered the same fate where a national holiday about celebrating your pride in your heritage has become one that is now mostly celebrated by young college kids of all ethnicities and is closely linked with Tequila, Mexican lager beer, and binge drinking. Both of these holidays tend to cast a negative stereotypical light on their country of origin as being full of drunkards.
Despite what culture has done to two holidays that never intended to be about drinking until you drop, we can still appreciate as Mexicans and Americans alike, that the outcome of that battle was a decisive turning point in history that greatly changed the series of events that directly followed that battle.
Mexican culture, and especially the food, is something dear to us at Rae & Ryan’s. We often travel across the border to visit Mexico and soak in the welcoming culture and try all the amazing food to be found there. We are not the typical tourist down there to buy a blanket and an overpriced bottle of tequila. I do always come back with a good bottle of tequila, but we will often find “locals only” spots which we are able to navigate since I am fluent in Spanish. Finding the little mom and pop place that doesn’t have big flashy signs and Americanized drink specials is quite the gem as they often have the best food, made in the traditional way, and often have salsas that will blow your mind!
One of our recent excursions down for our anniversary was a glorious discovery! We stayed at an Air BnB (which we highly recommend over the hotels) which was up on a cliff within walking distance from a local fishing village called Popotla. A true gem if you can find it and the epitome of a location where, “If you blink, you’ll miss it”. Nestled in a cove between Rosarito and Puerto Nuevo is a small village where you can watch the fishing boats come in around noon with the day’s haul. They all pull in to shore and unload their catch onto weathered wooden tables covered with ice.
The fresh catch is quickly picked over by the surrounding restaurants, of which there are about a dozen, and the best of the best is quickly swooped up. There are, however, so many great options out there for a fraction of the price you would pay in the States. Giant crabs, more types of fish than I can name, as well as clams, muscles, and even lobster on a good day. The best lobster, hands down, is available in Puerto Nuevo. You can even choose your fish from the market and take it up to one of the restaurants, or a shack on the beach, and they will cook it for you in your preferred style for a service fee and a tip. Experiences like this have made us fall in love with Mexico, the people, their way of life, and all the rich culture and food it has to offer.
Nothing is more iconic than the taco when it comes to Mexican cuisine and probably the first thing that pops into everyone’s mind. We have traveled far and wide within Mexico searching for the best tacos. We even planned a day trip to Eastern Tijuana in the commercial district where there is very little tourist activity just to track down a taco cart that was recommended to us as the best Al Pastor taco in TJ. We were not disappointed and it was rivaled only by our favorite place in Rosarito serving the Al Pastor style.
There are many different styles of taco, too many to elaborate on here, but for those who don’t know, we would like to highlight the six primary styles you will encounter, my two favorite wild cards, and the main differences between them. Even if you can’t make it down to Mexico or find a good taco shop near you, there’s no reason you cannot do a proper taco at home. Some taco styles are very complicated and have unique cooking methods, but the flavor profiles are still achievable even if you don’t have the means for the indigenous cooking methods. For example, grilling up some steak for Carne Asada to go with some quality tortillas and queso fresco is very doable for every level of cook.
So what is a taco?
The word taco, oddly enough, did not originate as a food-related term. Taco, referring to edible filling in a tortilla, didn’t come into existence until the 19th century in Mexico and, sadly, the taco didn’t make it to the U.S. until the 20th century! The first taco on record in the States was in 1905 and the hard shell taco wasn’t invented until 1947. Raw tortillas spoil faster than cooked ones so the hard shell taco was born out of innovation and necessity for pioneers in the taco evolution.
The word taco means a plug, or a wad, to fill a hole. This term was born from the silver mining industry where miners would carve a small hole, fill a piece of paper with gunpowder and wrap it up, then they would ignite the charge to dislodge the rocks and minerals. It was a primitive explosive that was used for blast mining before dynamite was invented in 1867. The black powder charge wrapped in paper was called a taco!
If you consider your mouth a small hole, a taco a wad of deliciousness, and understand that spicy chilis can pop off like dynamite in your mouth then the etymology of the term taco seems to make very linear sense! Although the term taco wasn’t on record until the 19th century, the food we now know as a taco has been around for millenniums. The earliest known official reference to the Mexican people calling a taco a “taco” was in the book “The Bandits of Cold River.”, which was published in 1891.
There are many, many, styles of tacos out there with myriad fillings from staples like beef, pork, and chicken to some very oddball ingredients that might make some cringe like beef tongue, brains, or even grasshoppers.
Beef tongue is one of my favorites IF it is cooked correctly, I haven’t tried brains, and actually, crickets are pretty tasty so I imagine grasshoppers are similar. And…now you’re grossed out. It’s ok, I don’t take it personally 😉 Let’s get to the staples with the proteins we can all agree upon!
What I consider to be the main styles and staples of the taco world are, in no particular order: Carne Asada (Beef), Carnitas (Pork), Pollo Adobado (Chicken), Birria ( Stewed Goat, Beef, or Lamb), Barbacoa ( Pit roasted Pork or Lamb), Al Pastor (Pork), and Seafood/Mariscos (Typically Shrimp or Fish).
Let’s break down these styles
Pronunciation guide: kar-nay ah-saw-dah
Carne Asada is made from Beef which typically utilizes the flank, flap, or skirt steak cuts and can be marinated or dry-rubbed. It is cooked hot and fast on a grill and then chopped or sliced up for tacos. Carne Asada’s literal translation is “Grilled Meat”. This style is most popular in the Northern States of Mexico with Sonora being the undisputed birthplace and reigning capital.
The cattle-ranching industry in Sonora is legendary and they produce some of the best beef you can get your hands on. Where many farms in the U.S. have gone the way of overcrowding and grain bloating livestock, Mexican ranchers for the most part still do things the old fashion way of open grazing and migrating herds. The quality of cattle they raise is legendary and the effort and expense are discernible in Sonora produced beef. It may be rude to ask a vendor where they sourced their beef, but oftentimes, if it came from Sonora they will display that and exploit the reputation that precedes it.
|Grilled Flank, Flap, or Skirt Steak||Best served with red salsa||but you can dress it however you like!|
Buy Yours Now!
Click the label above to see the product page for both our standard and spicy Taco Seasoning. Excellent on Steak, Ground Beef, and Chicken!
Pronunciation guide: kar-nee-tahs
Carnitas is one of my favorites, hands down, and is of medium difficulty to do at home compared to Carne Asada. Carnitas is made from pork, typically the shoulder, and according to classic French culinary techniques, it would be considered a Confit.
Carnitas are large chunks of pork shoulder that are slowly cooked while submerged in pork fat, lard. Once the meat has cooked slowly at a lower temperature, which would be the confit process, then the heat is kicked up and they fry in their own fat. The meat is juicy and tender on the inside while crisp and rich with texture on the outside.
Sourcing enough lard to cook carnitas at home might be tricky, but if you can find it then the process is pretty straight forward. A local Mexican grocer is likely to have fresh lard if they have their own facilities and restaurant inside, but at minimum, most grocery stores have commercial lard available by brands like Farmer John. Don’t use Crisco for this, that is better for baking.
Carnitas hails from the region of Michoacán and has become a favorite among all people far and wide. In Mexico, getting good carnitas is like finding your favorite brunch spot. It is typically a breakfast or lunch food, most popular on the weekends, and it sells out fast. On our last trip to Ensenada, we got to the place we wanted to try, 2 days in a row, just after they had closed. It wasn’t until the last morning we were there that we finally made it in time. All they served was carnitas with all the fixings and they were pulling the roasts up out of the boiling cauldrons and chopping it with a cleaver, to order, based on what cuts of pork you wanted your carnitas to comprise.
Some water boiled and shredded pork crisped up in a skillet- this is not. The real deal is cooked in fat, low and slow, and then hot and fast. You can absolutely do this at home!
If you read our last blog on making Pork Stock then you can even produce your own lard. The stock process doesn’t produce enough lard to make a substantial batch of carnitas, but if you can’t commit to the full process then shredded pork, cooked in whatever manner, that is simmered and crisped in fresh lard is better than nothing at all.
|Traditional method in Mexico where||Most of an entire pig is rendered down which||This creates all the lard needed to fry the carnitas|
|At home, this is best done in a dutch oven||Braised low and then fried hot!|
|Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside||Carnitas Tacos!|
Pronunciation guide: poy-yo ah-doh-bah-doh
Pollo means chicken, I think even the whitest among us knows that by now. Adobado means marinated and that is how you will most commonly find chicken prepared, by means of marinating and grilling.
Chicken is probably my least favorite protein, personally, as it has the least amount of inherent flavor and is very easy to overcook. I prefer fattier meats which stay juicy and chicken is very lean and can easily dry out. That does not mean however that chicken cannot be fantastic! I’ve had some chicken dishes and tacos that have blown my socks off, but when push comes to shove I will choose beef and pork over chicken. That’s just me.
|Adobado means marinated||Marinated and Grilled Chicken||Tacos de Pollo Adobado!|
Pronunciation guide: bier-ee-ah
Guadalajara is a western Mexico state in Jalisco which is renowned for Birria. Birria is a combination between a braised meat and a stew.
The meat is usually braised first and then the bones and tendons are removed and the meat and juices are reduced down until scrumptiously tender.
This can be served like a meat stew where the broth has some viscosity to it and becomes the intrinsic sauce or the meat can be strained and served “A la Plancha” which means it is crisped up on a flat top grill or in a skillet. The crispy shredded meat is then served with the stewed broth or Jus on the side for dipping. This can be the taco equivalent of a beef dip sandwich!
Whenever we go to Ensenada one of our Must Stop places is the Birrieria de Guadalajara.
This restaurant specializes in Birria, as the name suggests, and serves every meat in every style that you could want.
I trust this place to do goat and lamb birria correctly and they never disappoint!
|Birria Stew||Birria Taco “A la Plancha”||Taco served with Jus|
Pronunciation guide: bar-bah-ko-ah
Barbacoa… This is special, it is very hard to find cooked traditionally, and you cannot cook this correctly at home.
Barbacoa is the Mexican equivalent to Kahlua pork in Hawaii where they dig large fire pits and slow roast/smoke the meat with palm fronds or banana leaves covering the pit. The seasoning, of course, you can emulate and with modern pellet smoker grills and technology you can build a good flavor profile, but unless you are willing to be extra creative it is hard to emulate the combined roasted, smoked, and steamed cooking methods that a fire pit employs.
I’ve been searching for good barbacoa, in Mexico, and still have yet to find a place that does this traditionally in Northern Mexico. Texcoco is considered the capital of Barbacoa and it is a very rural region of Mexico. In Texcoco they approach this like the best competition BBQ teams in the States approach their craft. They build their pit and cook for hours on end, get up at 3 in the morning to harvest and prep the resulting BBQ in order to take it to market by daybreak.
This is a lifestyle and passion for the people who make this, it is a craft handed down through the generations, and a family secret they would die for. This is not backyard grilling or quickfire street food, this is serious, and absolutely worth the effort and cost if you ever find the real thing.
All the places I’ve encountered so far emulate the process with pellet smokers, ovens, humidity smokers, and other BBQ tech that allows them to not have to dig a fire pit and hire 24-hour staff to manage it. I get it, logistically it is a nightmare, but there is something extraordinary to be said for rural people who take the time to do something the proper way and have a passion for doing it. I aspire to find myself at such an establishment one day.
Much like Carnitas, this is considered a brunch food and is usually only served on weekends. It sells out fast!
|Barbacoa Fire Pit||Building a bed for the meat||Banana leaf wrapped roasts|
|Perfectly roasted and steamed||Barbacoa in Jus||Best Taco Ever|
Pronunciation guide: all pass-tor
This is a very unique taco-style that you can replicate the flavors of at home, but is another where the cooking method is quite unique.
Al Pastor has a bit of heritage since it is a fusion of native Mexican and emigrant Middle Eastern cuisine. As early as 1860 people from the Ottoman Empire began to emigrate to the Americas, specifically Mexico. As the Balkan wars approached and the collapse of Tsarist Russia was imminent, leading up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Russian Revolution of 1917; many saw fit to get out of dodge and seek safer sanctuary in the world.
Many people from what is now known as Lebanon emigrated to Mexico and settled successfully. They brought with them their traditions and cuisine as they assimilated into their new home. Shawarma was an indigenous food to them that was typically a dish of thinly sliced lamb that was stacked and skewered on a spit roast that slowly roasted the meat in a vertical rotisserie style.
Many emigrants set up restaurants featuring this style of cooking and the second generation of these people decided to fuse the traditional cuisine of their parents with the local cuisine of Mexico. What was born from this merger is what we now know as Al Pastor. Al Pastor translates to “shepherd style” which is a nod to the emigrants coming into Mexico bringing their free-range livestock cuisine of lamb tacos and merging that with the farmed and raised stock of pigs in Mexico. The flavor is half imported spice flavors and half indigenous flavors.
This second-generation swapped out the lamb for the preferred pork of the local region which went against the Halal, or Kosher, standard for meat and acceptable food of their patriarchs. The flavor is a blending of Middle Eastern spices like clove, cinnamon, and Black Pepper with the indigenous flavors in Mexico like chiles, annatto, oregano, and pineapple.
What was born from this merging of cultures is still to this day, my favorite taco-style. These flavors are very accessible in most grocery stores, but combining all of these flavors at a proper ratio is not for amateur hands.
Rae & Ryan’s is proud to provide an Al Pastor seasoning blend that is both true to modern flavors and the heritage that brought it to bear. Read more below about our Al Pastor and Taco Seasoning products.
Traditional spit roasting of stacked meat is not easily done at home, but you can marinate pork shoulder with our Al Pastor seasoning and grill it hot and fast like Carne Asada and achieve an absolutely delicious and honorable rendition of traditional Al Pastor.
|Al Pastor is heavily marinated and placed on a spit||Perfectly roasted rotisserie-style||Shaved down to order, exposing the next layer|
|An Al Pastor chef is respected for his hard work||Fire Engine red meat due to the pigment of Annato||The best street taco!|
Buy Yours Now!
Click label above to see the product page with full recipe and instructions on how to adapt this taco style to home cooking
This is such a broad genre of taco I’m almost embarrassed to say seafood taco, but it is a quintessential category. Fish and shrimp tacos are the most popular, by far, with the battered and fried fish taco native to Ensenada being the most iconic.
Ensenada style fish tacos are legendary all by themselves and on our last trip to Ensenada, we sought out all the fan favorites and compared them on the same day.
We did not have any bad fish tacos, but the clear winner for us was LuLu’s tacos. If you are in Ensenada it is on the south side of town past the tourism district, but before you leave the incorporated area heading down to the Bufadora. It will show up on a google map search.
Fish tacos, especially from LuLu’s, are a decadent delight! Fresh fish, hand-battered, and fried to order are served with citrus-infused mayo and a creamy chipotle sauce alongside fresh limes and a chili paste salsa. Fresh cabbage and radishes round out the texture and flavor profile.
Shrimp tacos can be served the same way or they can be grilled; These two methods are the most common, but my personal preference if I can find it is a taco made with Camarones al Diablo. This is a shrimp taco where the shrimp is prepared in a very spicy and garlic intensive pan sauce. It can be served tableside where you get a sizzling cast-iron skillet of Camarones al Diablo served with tortillas on the side like you would receive an order of fajitas or a place that specializes in it will serve you prepared tacos. Prepared tacos are assembled because they have the sauce in volume on the ready and just fire the shrimp to order. The tacos are bathed in the sauce that has been reducing for hours and is already rendered and thick.
|Battered and fried to order by street vendors||Fresh, hot, and amazing!||Ensenada style Fish Taco|
My two favorite wildcards are Tacos de Cabeza or Mejilla, which are head and cheek. Tacos de Cabeza are like stewing down a good pot roast or melt off the bone, literally, ribs. There is a lot of collagen and tasty fat on a cow’s head and a good amount of meat. When prepared properly this is quite the delicacy! If you can get over the gross factor of where it came from it is a wonderful meat and makes an exceptionally unctuous and tasty taco. In the same way, the cheek is very fatty and has lots of flavor potential. Both of these need to be prepared skillfully, but are ever so delicious!
That taco cart we sought out in Eastern TJ for the best Al Pastor served two things. Al Pastor and Cabeza. Tacos de Cabeza was 50% of what they served and if that is the case then you know they are making it really good. If cabeza is number 15 on the list of options then they probably don’t turn it over or make it that great. Use your common sense for which place probably makes it best.
That taco cart in the middle-of-nowhere TJ was THE BEST, Taco de Cabeza I have had to date, period. Reach out in the comments below if you want any travel tips in Baja California.
|Tacos de Lengua||Vendor making Cabeza Taco Meat||Shredded and succulent Cabeza Tacos!|
There is many a delicious taco to be had by professionals and amateurs alike. Not everyone is willing to tackle the more complicated cooking techniques that are most authentic, but the flavor profiles and textures are achievable by the home cook in simpler methods.
No one here is going to judge you if you can’t bust out a super authentic carnitas with a pot half full of boiling lard. Food is about discovery, desire, and innovation. Some of the best foods have been created because someone didn’t have what they really wanted on-hand.
We encourage you to make cooking a passion, something you want it to be and that you derive satisfaction from. We post some pretty big recipes on here and set the standard entry-level pretty high sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt and augment it into a form that suits your scale.
We hope that you are inspired by these posts to explore and excel rather than be overwhelmed. We always love questions and engagement and actively seek comments and questions on any post we put up.
Cheers and Salud to you and yours this Cinco de Mayo !
Kick up your Cinco de Mayo and any Taco Tuesday with Rae & Ryan’s Chili products!
|Our original recipe Chili Powder||The spicy version of Chili Powder||A true to heritage Al Pastor||Great on all proteins!|