There is no strict formula for making a good taco

First, you have got to read about why the definition of good food and cooking is largely psychological and a by-product of our childhood. I believe it — there really is no good or bad food (only inedible ones like badly burnt food) because food appreciation is a personal thing.

If one grew up with gourmet-like dishes at home, it would be hard to appreciate bland and colorless dishes. In the same manner, if one grew up on fast food spaghetti, there is a huge stumbling block to overcome before one can finally accept that there is a world of more flavorful and varied spaghetti other than the sweet mush with artificial food color. I’ve seen it first-hand — kids who turn their backs on spaghetti with no red sauce because it doesn’t look anything like they stuff from Jollibee or McDonald’s. I’ve seen it too with kids raised on home-cooked meals — they grow up defining dishes according to how their mothers and grandmothers cooked them. They will scoff at versions that are different and they will tell you that all those versions are wrong because there is only one definitive version — the one they know.

It’s a sad thing, really, because it closes the mind to new things. Life experiences are enriched by differences as well as uniqueness and the refusal to approach anything new or different with an open mind — and heart — is like knowingly sentencing oneself to a life in a tightly-closed box and never venturing outside it.

All that, of course, is the diplomatic way of saying I hate people who insist that a recipe is wrong because it is different from their mother’s or grandmother’s. And, believe me, after nine years of food blogging, the evidence shows that that attitude is more prevalent among men than women. Are Filipino males really such Mama’s boys? Ah, but never mind, that’s an entirely different topic. Right now, I want to talk about the taco.

pork belly and ox tripe taco

My first taco experience was a very bad one. Hard taco shells straight from the box stuffed with shredded raw (and unseasoned) cabbage, colorless sauteed ground beef, chopped onion and tomatoes and a mountain of grated cheese. I hated it right away. I couldn’t understand how one could eat all that without the filling falling out when the hard taco shell broke.

Years later, I would discover soft tortillas. I would learn to make salsa and guacamole. I would learn that the moistest and juiciest meat for taco filling is not sauteed ground beef but well-seasoned and slow-cooked meat — and that it didn’t matter what cut of meat and that the meat could also be replaced by seafood. And I would discover how a sprinkling of cilantro and squeeze of citrus juice could bring all the flavors together.

In short, I feel fortunate that I did not define a taco by my first taco experience. Otherwise, I might have formed a bias against Mexican cuisine. And that would have been a real tragedy.

And to prove my point about strict formulas being useless in cooking, look at the taco in the photo. Last night, I made a very simple dish to go with rice. I browned some chopped pork belly in the pan, added thinly sliced cooked tripe (the remaining half from the batch I pressure-cooked to make the tripe, sausage and chickpea soup, chopped red onions and finger chilis, a little lemon juice, salted black beans, ginger and some sugar. Although the meat pieces would have benefitted more had I allowed them to brown longer until the natural sugars had caramelized and formed bits of crusts around the pieces, the dish, in all its simplicity, turned out good. But I cooked too much and there was a little leftover. About a cup. Not enough for a meal for two but, as taco filling, well, there was more than enough.

By any reasonable standard, that spicy pork and tripe dish defies categorization. It’s a bit Asian, maybe Chinese and a bit Vietnamese, but not really. By any purist’s standard, that meat dish would not make a “proper” filling for a taco. But considering the diversity of Mexican cuisine, and especially how tacos are prepared differently from one region to the next, what is a “proper” taco filling at all?

So, ignoring all the rules, I made tacos with that leftover spicy pork and tripe dish for the filling. I spread smooth (not chunky) guacamole on warmed flour tortillas, added shredded lettuce, then the meat, chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro. And, instead of the usual sour cream, I used softened cream and cheddar cheeses stirred together until they made a smooth paste. The tacos were, well, simply magnificent.

There is no strict formula for making a good taco just as there is no strict formula for a good, and even a great, recipe for any dish in the whole world. Even all that crap about baking being an exact science? Not true. A large egg in Asia might not be the same size as a large egg in an Irish farm. So, if a cake recipe calls for three large eggs, how exact can that be unless the eggs, minus the shells, are weighed? In the same manner, how exact can “three egg yolks” or “three egg whites” be when yolk sizes differ from one egg to the next. I can give a dozen examples but you get what I mean. I hope.

So, there. If I were to summarize everything I have written above, it is this: Ditch the formula. Rather, discover, explore and revel in your own kitchen adventures. Everyday.

  • peterb

    “Ditch the formula. Rather, discover, explore and revel in your own kitchen adventures. Everyday.”

    I agree! I’m sure a lot of delicious and popular dishes out there were developed that way!

    • Julius S

      Connie,

      >> you said:
      >>Are Filipino males really such Mama’s boys?

      LOL. Its funny you say that. I’m Filipino male, my girlfriend is from Lucena City and she says that of Filipino males too.

      I agree with your statement though. Growing up in the Philippines, I grew up in a household where we had Maids; laundry was washed for; I woke up in the morning with Breakfast ready on the table; all I had to do was go to school and get good grades.

      Now, being a father of three kids in US is a totally different story. I don’t do that to my kids. No maids for sure. I involve them with cooking, washing laundry, cleaning the house, washing the dishes.

  • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

    Peterb, yep, if all cooks just followed what had always been done before, how boring mankind’s food experience would be. ;-)

    Julius S, Filipino males often have this attitude that their mother is never wrong. The loyalty is nice but, goodness, independent thinking has to play a role too.

  • Suzette

    Hi Connie,
    I had a very “selfish” reason why i started cooking when i had my daughter a few years ago; I wanted my “version” of dishes the one she would prefer, remember when I’m long gone. It irked me when I was newly married and my husband would say his mom’s version of a certain dish was better. Back then I realized food preferences were rooted in childhood so I better start early with my daughter. I always say to her what my lolo used to say to me when encountering a new dish: “you don’t have to like it but at least try it.”

  • http://feistycook.com Dexie

    My thoughts exactly!!

    • Sharon O

      I think it’s true for most males in other cultures too! Especially where food made the traditional way is so ingrained in their culture, such as the Italians and Greeks. But it’s true, there’s a place for food made the old-fashioned, traditional way, using methods and techniques and ways of cooking that have been so enjoyed for many generations. And there’s definitely a place for modernizing these same foods, introducing elements and techniques from other cuisines. More often than not, they help to improve the dishes! So, basically, it’s all good :-) (Except for Mama’s boys, they need to get over it. LOL).

      • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

        Sharon, I think it’s the Latin-Mediterranean males, mostly. And I think the Filipinos got it from the Spanish. :-P

        A, that was shot last year! Net 25 keeps re-running the episode hehehe

  • crisma

    It’s all about having an open mind so that new things, ideas and ways of doing things can make us expand our world. We all know that this is true not only in cooking, baking, art, photography, teaching, learning, singing, dancing, but in so many areas in life. I call it “the vastness of life.”

    Thanks Connie.

  • Miles Sumner

    I moved here late March, 2013 from Southern California, near Mexico. I dined on Tacos at least once a week. I’ve eaten Tacos here in the Philippines everyplace I’ve gone when they are on the menu. None to my liking yet. Closest are at Army/Navy Solenad, Nuvali. Picked up some frozen flour tortillas at Robinsons, however they don’t compare to corn tortillas. Still seeking place nearby to get fresh CORN tortillas. Any suggestions ? ? ?

  • Julius S

    I like your blog entry in that
    it is actually more than just
    avoiding rules, formulas, or bias towards a
    good Taco or Mexican Food, or any kind of cuisine.
    But also about having an open, adventurous mind set,
    and not bound by rules when cooking, preparing
    food in general.

    Thanks.

  • A

    Ms Connie I saw someone on Net25! It’s great to hear the voice behind the blogposts, and the cooking actually in action!

    Good job! ;-)