Barbacoa: Mexican Style Barbeque


 Barbacoa: Mexican Style Barbeque   

  Tara A. Spears

My favorite type of cuisine is any meat or fish barbequed. Any season, any country, bring me a grilled entre!  Of all the tasty Mexican dishes available, I LOVE barbacoa- tender, succulbarb-1ent meat that has been smoked and roasted over a grill.  Any fan of barbeque knows that it is the regional twists to seasonings that make barbeque meat outstanding; it’s the same in Mexico. Different geographic regions have preferred spices and secret family recipes that are unique to that state.  While some of the seasonings are constant throughout the country, chile, for example, the proportions and method of meat preparation varies regionally.

The dish of barbacoa runs deep within the culture of Mexico from ancient time. Centuries ago the indigenous Mexicans heated food over an open fire. They used cast iron pots and clay dishes over a smoky wood fire.  Today, chefs can get a similar result by using a grill. Grilling also enhances the flavors in Mexican dishes by bringing out the unique flavor that comes from cooking over an open fire.  Almost any decent cut of meat can be marinated in Mexican flavors and grilled to bring out the smoky taste.barb-2

A traditional Mexican way of eating barbacoa is having it served on a warm soft taco style corn tortilla with guacamole and salsa for added flavor. In some areas, the meat is often served in the banana leaves it was cooked in. Traditional garnish to accompany Mexican barbacoa includes: red and green spicy sauce, onion, lemon, radishes, cucumbers, stewed onions, chiles as well as guacamole and crema (sour cream).

According to Mexican food expert, Chelsie Kenyon, the ancient, traditional method used to prepare meats was steaming. Barbacoa was made by steaming meat suspended over boiling water in a deep pit. The meat was often wrapped in cactus or banana leaves.


 Traditional Mexican barbacoa seasonings are onion, garlic, oregano, cumin and chili powder. Mexican oregano gives their dishes a rich earthy flavor. The Mexican Chile powder is actually a blend of dried, powdered chiles, cumin and oregano. Other spices are sometimes included in the mix, but those are the key ingredients. It is used primarily for seasoning meats and vegetables but is also used in other dishes. Other ‘must have’ ingredients for Mexican style barbacoa include the  following seasoning: garlic, onion, Tamarind, bay leaves, fresh cilantro.

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Another chile powder commonly used that is gaining popularity outside of Mexico is Chipotle. Actually, chipotle is just a jalapeno that has been dried and smoked. Chipotle has a distinctive flavor that goes well in many sauces and salsas. It is also the primary flavor in Adobo, a fiery marinade.

Let’s take a look at the seven different regions of Mexican cooking and their signature dishes. Starting at the top of the country is the vast region that makes up “El Norte”-encompassing the states of Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. This area stretches 2000 miles from the rugged Pacific coast of Baja California to the lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico, and its cuisine reflects the hearty and unpretentious nature of ranch culture. The region’s distinctive cooking technique is expertly grilled beef, and the most popular dishes include machaca, arrachera ( beef  flank steak used for fajitas) and cabrito (baby goat). One of the most requested dishes is ‘Mochomos style’ beef.   The beef is salted, shredded and dried in accordance with northern Mexican tradition with the meat then being fried. It is so tender that the meat melts on your tongue! Luscious!

The Pacific North Coast region includes states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. Stretching along Mexico’s long Pacific shoreline and supplying much of the country’s staple grains, fruits and vegetables in addition to the freshest and widest selection of local cheeses, chiles, and seafood. The North Pacific Coast cuisine is noted for dishes such as chilorio, birria, pozole, chilayo, menudo and pork dishes. Birria, a traditional cuisine of Jalisco is prepared with goat meat or lamb in a tomato broth and chile.    


An immense plateau bordered by rugged mountains, the Bajio region consists of Michoacan, Guanajuanto, San Luis Potosi and Queretaro. el Bajio cuisine are rice, pork and spices. One of the best-known dishes from the state is morisquesta – a sausage and rice dish – closely followed by carnitas, or deep-fried pork. The latter can be found in many parts of Mexico, often claimed to be authentically Michoacán.     

The highlands of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas make up the Southern Pacific Coast region. This area remains the most purely Indian region, boasting the most indigenous of Mexico’s provincial cuisines. The regional cooking includes staples such as chicken and pork, mole sauces, and chiles.


The food of the Yucatán peninsula- including the states of Campeche, Yucatan & Quintana Roo- is distinct from the rest of the country and is based on Mayan food with influences from Cuba and other Caribbean islands, Europe, Asia and Middle Eastern cultures. The area’s best-known dish, pibil, refers to the cooking method (from the Mayan word pib, meaning “buried”) in which foods and various meats are wrapped, generally in banana leaves, and cooked in a pit oven. I have had lamb barbcoa prepared in this manner and it is fabulous: spicy tender and moist.

The eastern region consists of Tabasco & Veracruz. The balmy, easy-going world of the states that border the Gulf of Mexico is culturally – as well as geographically – an arm of the Caribbean and is the essence of the region’s cuisine, a mix of indigenous, Afro-Cuban and Spanish that shares the Creole culture of Colonial Caribbean port towns like Havana, San Juan, Cartagena and even New Orleans. The Europeans introduced herbs to the region such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel and cilantro that characterize much of the state’s cooking. Huachinango a la veracruzana, a local popular dish, is red snapper prepared with a light tomato sauce seasoned with bay leaves, onions, capers, olives and sweet yellow peppers.


The last region, Central Mexico, consists of Mexico, Puebla, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo and Distrito Federal (Federal District). Mexico City cooking is characterized by influences from other regions of Mexico as well as a number of foreign countries. Many of the ingredients used in this area’s cooking, such as tropical fruits, are not grown here. Nearly every street has a variety of quick cuisine, with taco stands, torta (sandwich) shops, and lunch counters on every street. Popular foods in the city include barbacoa (a specialty of the central highlands).

The next time that you’re dining out, try one of the Mexican regional barbacoa specialties. From cabieria (tenderloin) to costillas (ribs) and every other grilled meat, you can’t go wrong. Add a Margarita to the meal and enjoy the sunset!


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