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.

casaveneracion.com 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.