Friday, 18 October 2013

KANKUN tacos al pastor

Tacos al pastor means "shepherd's tacos". I would expect British readers to have visions of mince and peas and carrots topped with mashed potato.

But "shepherd's tacos" has nothing to do with shepherd's pie. In fact, I don't think it has anything to do with shepherds, really.

Whereas in the US tacos have been corrupted by Taco Bell into a ridiculous (usually stale) U-shaped crispy thing nearly always stuffed with the same hardly Mexican ground beef filling, in Mexico a taco is usually a fresh (soft) corn tortilla which can be filled with just about anything.

There's even a verb, taquear, which means "to put (something) in a taco".

And yet despite this endless possibility, there are some fillings which are so popular they can be put on a Top Ten Favourite Tacos list. If tacos al pastor is not top of that list, it's got to be pretty close.

But that doesn't mean you can get them outside of Mexico.

I myself first heard of them in the book Fiesta en la madriguera. And a lot of Mexpat food bloggers complain of how much they miss them.

So what are they? Tacos al pastor are pork and pineapple tacos in a spicy sweet and sour sauce made of chiles and achiote paste (recado rojo).

I've read one recipe that uses chiles guajillos for the chile element, but my preference is for chipotles.
And one of the best - and most authentically Mexican-tasting - chipotle sauces you can buy is from KANKUN.

Now, before we get to the recipe, I have to warn you: these are "al pastor-style" tacos, rather than literal tacos al pastor. The reason for this is that there's more to these tacos than the sauce.
Normally you'd expect Mexican pork tacos to use fried pork or slow-cooked carnitas. You wouldn't expect this:

Again, I'm sure my British readers are thinking "Kebabs!"

And indeed, these most popular of Mexican tacos were apparently first developed by Lebanese immigrants! Which just goes to show that Mexico, home of one of the world's first "fusion cuisines", remains adventurous and open-minded even it comes to food.

However, this also means that in the absence of a spit-roaster you can't make proper tacos al pastor at home. The flavour will be right, but the texture of the meat will not be quite the same.

One Mexpat blogger, Mely from Mexico in my Kitchen was driven to extremes to replicate the authentic texture:

That's one hell of a piece of kit, Mely!

Perhaps we could all get together and ask the UK's kebab shops to add tacos al pastor to their menus. Who's with me?

KANKUN pastor-style tacos


500 - 750 g pork shoulder for carnitas
Half a pineapple, diced (I actually used tinned pineapple)
1 red onion, diced
1 recipe recado rojo (about 50 g)
4 tbsp KANKUN Chipotle Sauce
90 - 100 mL pineapple juice
A few pieces of diced pineapple
Tortillas and some extra KANKUN (to serve)


First make carnitas: trim the gristle from your pork, rub it with some ground spices like black pepper, allspice, a dash of cinnamon and a pinch of cumin, put in a casserole dish, cover with about 500 mL of water (taking care not to wash off the spices), cover and roast at 180° C (160° fan) for 3 - 5 hours.

When it's done, shred it and leave it to one side.

This recipe works really well with leftover carnitas. Or, you could dice the pork shoulder, marinate it in the sauce (see below) for at least an hour (preferably overnight), then brown it in a frying pan along with the red onion, then cover and stick it in the oven at 160° C (fan) for an hour.

Now make the sauce. Blend the recado rojo (achiote paste) with the KANKUN Chipotle sauce and a few chunks of pineapple. Then add the pineapple juice a bit at a time until the sauce is thin but not watery. If you're using diced pork shoulder, this is what you use as a marinade.

If you're using carnitas, heat some oil in a pan and sweat the onion. Then fry the carnitas until they take on a bit of texture. Now add the sauce and continue cooking until the pork is completely covered and heated through. Then add the pineapple and continue frying a few minutes longer. 

Serve with warm tortillas (preferably homemade corn tortillas, though I once made this into a burrito) and a little extra KANKUN Chipotle sauce on the side.

The combination of the inimitable achiote paste with the smoky chipotle heat and the sweet and sharp pineapple is unbelievably addictive. I can really see why these are so popular.

Mrs MexiGeek called it a kind of Mexican Sweet and Sour, and there definitely is something "Asian" in the flavour profile, which isn't surprising considering the origin of these tacos.

If you've never tried tacos al pastor, you really need to. It's one of those things that will re-educate you about the flavours of Mexican food. And maybe some day we'll even get them from kebab shops!

Also, my mom sent me some jicama, so I whipped up a "Mexican raita" out of jicama and cucumber in sour cream and lime juice, sprinkled with some tajin of course, and served on the side. I "julienned" the jicama but peeled, seeded, and diced the cucumber. The tacos al pastor are pretty spicy, so it's good to have a "cooling" constrast dish on the side.

This recipe uses a fair bit of KANKUN (nearly 100 mL). Obviously I went for "hot". They make a mild version as well, if you're not such a heat freak. However I should warn you that it's Mexican mild, which is still pretty hot. For Edinburgh locals think of the so-called "mild" curries at Kebab Mahal.

One of the many reasons I love this sauce!