Welcome to our latest installment of: The Global Table, where we share stories of what and how we eat around the world. Check back here every few weeks for a new dish, a new story, and a new perspective on the world.
If you were to walk into a noisy tianguis (city center marketplace) in Mexico on a Sunday afternoon, you would be privy to the sight and sounds of revelers singing and dancing to cumbia and mariachi music, tequila and beers flowing from cups, gaggles of families and friends congregated together eating tortillas slathered with avocado, salsa, and the unmistakeable aroma of freshly cooked barbacoa meat. What is behind this ancient Native ceremony of eating barbacoa that is at the centerpiece of so many weddings, celebrations, and community fiestas.
The global history of barbacoa has many different interpretations and is as hotly debated as what region of Mexico makes the best barbacoa. The major consensus is that the word barbacoa comes from the ancient Taino Caribbean tribe, and refers to the large wooden frame they would use to roast seafood, and poultry over burning embers. However, some research suggests that the word is actually Mayan in origin which means “meat covered over dirt” and refers to the widely known technique used in Mexico. This would imply that the real origin of barbacoa is native to ancient Mexico and was transported to the Taino in Haiti where they omitted digging the pit, and instead roasted game over a wooden frame. Historical mysteries aside, the Spanish were deeply impressed by the tasty tender meat and influenced the evolution of barbacoa by introducing sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats into the fire.
In Mexico, barbacoa refers not only to the method of cooking game but also to the meat itself. The method involves digging a deep pit into the ground, filling it with volcanic rocks and mesquite logs, then wrapping the meat in maguey leaves, covering the pit with dirt, and cooking it overnight to wake up to the aromas of ancient heaven. There is a Oaxacan tradition that involves leaving a bottle of mezcal inside the pit near the animal, tying a wire to the bottle attached to a cross (marking it as a grave) and when the barbacoa is ready, drinking the bottle of mezcal and toasting with guests to the ensuing celebration. As an avid partaker of many barbacoas, the festivities usually begin on the night that the meat is prepared and covered over so that when the hangover arrives at dawn, the barbacoa acts as a welcome morning medicine.
Barbacoa pits vary in size, but are usually at least 2 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep, large enough to roast a whole pig. Stones are lodged into the pit with logs on top; they are burned for a few hours until the heat is at the right temperature, at which point many of the stones are rearranged. The maguey leaves will then be used to cover all the coals, then a large pot of barbacoa consomme ingredients (carrots, onions, garbanzo beans, potatoes) with water is placed on top of the coals to provide the steam, with a wire frame placed on top. The meat is lodged atop the frame and is not cooked by the fire, but by the vapor and steam emitted from the moisture which is essential to give the meat the famed smokey tenderness and taste.
Mexican barbacoa has a dizzying amount of variety which changes based on the region and native tribes that inhabited the area. Hildalgo is famous for its sheep barbacoa, and is consistently rated high by barbacoa aficionados, Yucatan for pig, aka known famously as “cochinita pibil” which marinates the pork in citrus juice and uses achiote seeds and banana leaves instead of maguey. Jalisco uses goat or lamb well known as “birria”, a stewy version that uses guajillo chiles, and is a hit with those of us who prefer a spicy juicy broth to accompany our meat. In Veracruz, there is Zacahuil the tamale version of barbacoa, where they cook massive versions of a tamale in the barbacoa pit which can be up to 5 meters long! There is also the Oaxacan version which uses “borrego” (lamb) which also has its fair share of hype largely attributed to Rick Bayless endorsement. A common denominator that abounds in all these styles of barbacoa is that they are all served with homemade tortillas, refried beans, spicy salsa or guacamole, to add a final dash of flavor. A group of friends, family, a celebratory mood and a bottle of mezcal, and you are as close to the real thing whether in Hidalgo, Oaxaca, New York, the Bay Area or beyond.
Making Barbacoa at Home
Now, to make barbacoa at home we aren’t asking you to go out and dig a large pit in your backyard, (unless you want to) so we invite you to try this slow-cooker home-version from Rick Bayless.