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Old 12-07-2010, 06:51 AM
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Taco, fajita, burrito, what's the difference? They're all wrapped in tortillas, aren't they?

(This is perhaps more appropriate in CS, but since this seems more like a factual question, I'm trying GQ. Mods, feel free to move if I'm wrong)

I've eaten some Tex-Mex food, but that's been the "make it yourself"-kit type of cooking, so I'm really ignorant about Tex-Mex cooking. This may be a very stupid question, but bear with me. I'm a European . I'd like to understand the differences between the different food-in-a-tortilla stuffs I've eaten. What is it that really makes a taco a taco and not a fajita, what's the difference between a fajita and a burrito, what distinguishes a burrito from a "wrap" and so forth?
Old 12-07-2010, 07:07 AM
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Well, that's EASY. Why the answer is...

...

OK, this requires a bit more thought than I anticipated. Some of the differences are subtle, some are entirely regional (fun fact: Burritos are not eaten in Mexico. They are pretty much straight-up American cuisine.)

Fajitas, at least, seem to always have a particular style of filling. Some kind of seasoned meat (usually steak or chicken, sometimes shrimp depending on the restaurant you eat at) grilled before being served with sauteed onions and peppers.

Burritos, in my mind, usually have rice, and often have beans, along with numerous other ingredients. They also seem to have a tendency to be closed up on the ends.

Tacos are probably the superspecies to burritos and fajitas, basically just being some meat and cheese and veggies served in a tortilla. For me, a taco has always had the hard corn shell. I've seen them with soft corn shells or flour shells, but those always struck me as more burrito than taco.

Probably helps that "Burrito" is, just like with "Hot Dog", a name that more describes the shape of the food than the content (Burrito is spanish for "Little Burro", but will almost never contain anything of the sort, given that, as mentioned above, burritos are American cuisine)

Does that vague it all down for you? Well, let's not forget Taquitos and Flautas, which are both basically smaller tacos made with rolled up tortillas and crisp-fried. A "Wrap" is anything that would normally be a taco or a burrito, but isn't Tex Mex.

Let's not get into Quesadillas or Tostadas. That'll just get complicated.

I think the question is kind of like "What's the difference between a Sub and a Club and a French Dip?"
Old 12-07-2010, 07:16 AM
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I wouldn't refer to fajitas as having any kind of filling..... the tortillas are typically served on the side.

Don't forget enchiladas.
Old 12-07-2010, 07:19 AM
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The Italians have six thousand words for pasta, and the Tex-Mexicans have six thousand words for "stuff in a tortilla." Like pasta, these varieties largely differ mostly by shape and the traditional accompaniments, which vary considerably by region.
Old 12-07-2010, 07:20 AM
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A taco is a small flour tortilla (about the size of your hand) that's folded in half filled with just about anything you want -- often some sort of meat and salsa, possibly with veggies, beans, or cheese. It's traditional Mexican street food. You usually eat two or three at a time. ETA: I think hard corn tortillas (pre-formed into shells) are another US invention.

Burritos are pretty much the same thing, but larger and completely enclosed in a larger tortilla. Less messy. They're not as traditional -- IIRC they're an invention of gringos from Southern California -- but they've become ubiquitous in the US and some parts of northern Mexico.

Fajitas are a particular type of filling that's usually served in a particular way. In a Tex-Mex restaurant, they'll cook up marinated skirt steak with peppers and onions and usually bring out the whole skillet, along with all of the other associated fixings and flour tortillas. You assemble them yourself at the table.

A "wrap" is a very recent variation where you put whatever the hell you want into a very large not-quite-flour-tortilla. Most restaurants in the US have wraps which are filled with whatever sandwich fixings or salads they serve normally. They're particularly popular today because they are "low-carb" and also a convenient portable way to eat a salad. Usually has nothing to do with Mexican or Tex-Mex food.

Last edited by lazybratsche; 12-07-2010 at 07:23 AM.
Old 12-07-2010, 08:37 AM
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Raguleader & Lazybratsche have it right.

Tacos are basically a sort of sandwich, if you think about the tortilla being the bread. You have some sort of filling, usually meat and some kind of vegetables in the tortilla, which is folded up into a u-shape.

Fajitas more properly refers to the meat itself - it's marinated grilled skirt steak slices and grilled onions and peppers that you generally eat taco-style in a tortilla with pico de gallo and/or guacamole. Sometimes cheese and sour cream are served alongside as well.

Burritos are a little different- they're more of a self-contained taco, if you will. Usually burritos also have beans in them in my experience. I think Lazybratsche is right- they're a north of the border invention, and typically seem to be a meal in themselves, while most people eat at least a couple of tacos at a sitting, sometimes with side dishes.

There's no reason that you couldn't make a taco with any burrito filling and vice versa; the main thing is that tacos are open tortillas and burritos are closed up.
Old 12-07-2010, 08:49 AM
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If you ordered "fajitas, hold the tortillas", they would know exactly what you meant: the grilled meat/vegetables ARE the fajitas. But if you ordered tacos or burritos without the tortilla, it wouldn't even make sense.
Old 12-07-2010, 08:59 AM
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Note that "taco" and "burrito" are not necessarily the same thing north and south of the Rio Grande; the basic formula may apply but what you get may be widely varied and possibly unrecognizable as one or the other. What everyone above are describing are the American conventions. In Mexico a hard-shelled taco is unseen; a soft corn tortilla with meat, veggies and other ingredients like guacamole and/or salsa is what you will get in Mexico. A burrito in Mexico is essentially just an extra-large taco with a flour tortilla instead of corn (large corn tortillas tend not to hold up too well).

Last edited by DCnDC; 12-07-2010 at 09:00 AM.
Old 12-07-2010, 09:07 AM
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Originally Posted by 2square4u View Post
I'm a European .
Are you familiar with the subtle differnences between spaghetti and linguine? Or penne and rigatoni? They have slightly different shapes and typical uses. Same type of thing. Perhaps to the Mexican, each of those labels are just inscrutable words representing indistinguishable fragments of pasta.
Old 12-07-2010, 09:09 AM
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And isn't a "burrito" descended from a "burro"?
Old 12-07-2010, 09:18 AM
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Originally Posted by acsenray View Post
And isn't a "burrito" descended from a "burro"?
Yeah the story is that there was a street taco vendor who would transport himself and his wares on his donkey, prompting people to refer to his fare as "food of the little donkey."
Old 12-07-2010, 09:21 AM
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Is that right? Interesting.

At some restaurants, I've actually seen something called a "burro" on the menu, and they seem to be super-large burritos.
Old 12-07-2010, 09:46 AM
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My ~1990 edition of The People's Guide to Mexico warns that if you ask for a burrito anywhere outside the North, then you may get a small donkey.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:18 AM
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Whatis the difference between a sandwich, a panini, a melt, a sub and a burger? It's all stuff between two pieces of bread.

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Originally Posted by lazybratsche View Post
Burritos are pretty much the same thing, but larger and completely enclosed in a larger tortilla. Less messy. They're not as traditional -- IIRC they're an invention of gringos from Southern California -- but they've become ubiquitous in the US and some parts of northern Mexico.
Burritos may have been invented on this side of the border, but probably not by gringos. I think it's more a product of the northernmost regions of Mexican cuisine, which happen to be in America at the moment. Culinary traditions respect no border, and there is nothing inherently "inauthentic" about the Mexican cuisines of America.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:18 AM
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Originally Posted by acsenray View Post
Is that right? Interesting.

At some restaurants, I've actually seen something called a "burro" on the menu, and they seem to be super-large burritos.
That's just a sort of Spanglish joke. A burro is a burrito ("little burro") that isn't so little.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:20 AM
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Originally Posted by cornflakes View Post
My ~1990 edition of The People's Guide to Mexico warns that if you ask for a burrito anywhere outside the North, then you may get a small donkey.
I thought the whole thing about donkeys was a myth.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:20 AM
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Since this is about food, let's move it across the border to Cafe Society.

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Old 12-07-2010, 10:32 AM
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Originally Posted by even sven View Post
Culinary traditions respect no border, and there is nothing inherently "inauthentic" about the Mexican cuisines of America.
Reminds me of a rant I like to go into. When I was stationed in Kansas, I was treated to a cornucopia of fast food joints the likes of which I'd never seen before (Texas has its own fast food chains, as does Cali, Kansas is just... weird.)

Anyhow, one day my girlfriend and I stopped in at a place called Taco Tico. I had a beef-and-potato burrito that was honestly pretty good. I went back to the office and mentioned it when asked about my lunch. One of my co-workers (one of the whitest guys I've ever worked with, incidentally), then complained that "That's not authentic Mexican food!"

My reply being "So what? If I want authentic Mexican food, I'll go home."
Old 12-07-2010, 10:34 AM
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Yeah the story is that there was a street taco vendor who would transport himself and his wares on his donkey, prompting people to refer to his fare as "food of the little donkey."
I have never heard that. I heard that the nickname was based on the fact that a "burrito could carry everything/you could pack anything into/onto it" - i.e., at its most basic, it was "leftovers and rice in a tortilla." Now that I think about it, I have no recollection where I heard that...

Hmm, at this site, they state:

Quote:
In Spanish, the word burrito literally means “little donkey.” It is believed that the dish gained this name because the end of a folded burrito looks a bit like the ear of a donkey. The etymology of the word may also have to do with the rolled bedding that traveling donkeys often carry.

Last edited by WordMan; 12-07-2010 at 10:35 AM.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:41 AM
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More than you ever wanted to know.

We tend to hash this one out every year or so. Never to any satisfactory conclusion, mind you!
Old 12-07-2010, 10:42 AM
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Originally Posted by DCnDC View Post
In Mexico a hard-shelled taco is unseen
Not quite. There are tacos dorados, which are tacos that are fried so they crisp up into a hard shell. They're different in that the shells are not preformed like their American counterparts, but the effect is similar.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:46 AM
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Originally Posted by WordMan View Post
I have never heard that. I heard that the nickname was based on the fact that a "burrito could carry everything/you could pack anything into/onto it" - i.e., at its most basic, it was "leftovers and rice in a tortilla." Now that I think about it, I have no recollection where I heard that...
It's an apocryphal story. Supposedly the man's name was Juan Mendez who hocked his burritos in Juarez during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921), however the word burrito referring to food appears in Mexican dictionaries much earlier than that, at least to 1895.

An accurate history can be found here.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:54 AM
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Fajitas is actually the meat, which is beef--chicken, shrimp, etc. are not true fajitas. And they're a south Texas invention. Actually, here, we call just about everything in a tortilla a taco. In El Paso, there are burritos and tacos. Not in deep south Texas. It's ALL tacos.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:58 AM
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No one has ever heard of the joke about the lady who walks into a Mexican restaurant and asks:

What's a TAY-co?

Meat, beans and rice in a tortilla.

What's a burr-EE-to?

Meat, beans and rice in a toritilla.

What's a en-chee-LAY-da?

Meat...
Old 12-07-2010, 11:11 AM
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Jim Gaffigan on Mexican food (1:51)
Old 12-07-2010, 11:21 AM
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Originally Posted by pulykamell View Post
Not quite. There are tacos dorados, which are tacos that are fried so they crisp up into a hard shell. They're different in that the shells are not preformed like their American counterparts, but the effect is similar.
Yes. Pre-fried taco shells are definitely a Tex-Mex invention. And, made with fresh ingredients, crispy tacos can be delicious! But tacos dorados, fried after construction, may be found in Mexico.

I've heard that Burritos came from California; Houston Mex-Mex places call them "LA Style." They are made from flour tortillas, which are not as tasty as corn tortillas but wrap large amounts of food more securely. (Deep-fry a Burrito to get a Chimichanga!)

Fajitas are, specifically, marinated & grilled skirt steak. They are usually served with flour tortillas, beans & assorted accompaniments. Chicken & shrimp can be cooked & served the same way but should not be called "fajitas." (Said the pedant who still gets mad when people misuse "decimate.") Of course, you can make tacos out of fajitas.....

Last edited by Bridget Burke; 12-07-2010 at 11:22 AM.
Old 12-07-2010, 11:32 AM
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And a burrito enchilada is a burrito with a spicy red sauce and cheese poured on top.
Old 12-07-2010, 11:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Raguleader View Post
Anyhow, one day my girlfriend and I stopped in at a place called Taco Tico.

When I was a kid in Oklahoma we used to eat Taco Tico quite a bit, but that was 30 years ago. Their jingle at the time was something along the lines of "mumblemumble Taco Tico for a mouthful of fun"

Thanks for the trip down memory lane
Old 12-07-2010, 01:09 PM
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In my area (southeast US):


Taco: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a small shell (hard corn, soft corn, or flour). Tacos seldom (never?) contain rice or beans. Usually folded rather than rolled.

Burrito: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a large flour shell, which is rolled and folded closed at the ends. Burritos often contain rice and/or beans.

Fajitas: Grilled meat in large chunks along with grilled peppers and onions. Typically presented on a sizzling iron pan with several small flour or soft corn tortillas on the side.

Enchilada: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a corn shell which is rolled but not folded. Covered in a spicy sauce and melted cheese.
Old 12-07-2010, 02:11 PM
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Originally Posted by awldune View Post
In my area (southeast US):


Taco: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a small shell (hard corn, soft corn, or flour). Tacos seldom (never?) contain rice or beans. Usually folded rather than rolled.

Burrito: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a large flour shell, which is rolled and folded closed at the ends. Burritos often contain rice and/or beans.

Fajitas: Grilled meat in large chunks along with grilled peppers and onions. Typically presented on a sizzling iron pan with several small flour or soft corn tortillas on the side.

Enchilada: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a corn shell which is rolled but not folded. Covered in a spicy sauce and melted cheese.
Ground anything in a taco, burrito, or enchilada is Comida Gavacho, and should never be called Mexican....



P.S. I'm in Southern California, where if you want it more Mexican, just drive 90 or so miles south to "Mecca"

Last edited by ministryman; 12-07-2010 at 02:14 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 02:18 PM
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Ground anything in a taco, burrito, or enchilada is Comida Gavacho, and should never be called Mexican....
The Onion-Taco Bell's Five Ingredients
Old 12-07-2010, 03:28 PM
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Originally Posted by awldune View Post
In my area (southeast US):

[...]

Enchilada: Ground, shredded, or finely chopped meat in a corn shell which is rolled but not folded. Covered in a spicy sauce and melted cheese.
Enchiladas take a whole slew of forms. I see that you have limited it to your regional definition. The main thing enchiladas have in common is that the tortilla is in some way en-chile-d. This means that the tortilla is either dipped in a spicy chili sauce of some sort (it can be tomato-based, tomatillo-based, mole-based, etc.), poured over with this sauce, or, in the case of enchiladas potosinas, the chiles are mixed into the masa in the making of the tortilla. They can be rolled or folded. They can be baked or fried (as in the case of the enchiladas potosinas). They may or may not have cheese on them.
Old 12-07-2010, 03:29 PM
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Ground anything in a taco, burrito, or enchilada is Comida Gavacho, and should never be called Mexican....
Picadillo is not Mexican?
Old 12-07-2010, 05:30 PM
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And a burrito enchilada is a burrito with a spicy red sauce and cheese poured on top.
It doesn't have to be red, but it has to be made with chiles. There needn't be any cheese. Enchilada means literally "in chile". My understanding is that in Mexico the tortilla is dipped in chili sauce and then can be finished a few different ways depending on whether it's a home meal or street food. The couple of Mexicans I've talked to don't recognize the weird baked lasagna style food some Americans make.
Old 12-07-2010, 05:32 PM
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Picadillo is not Mexican?

No, that's Cuban.
Old 12-07-2010, 05:55 PM
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Originally Posted by Alice The Goon View Post
No, that's Cuban.
Pretty darn sure it's featured in Mexican cuisine, too....

Last edited by pulykamell; 12-07-2010 at 05:57 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 05:57 PM
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Pretty sure it features in Mexican cuisine, too.
I've lived in Tucson for 15 years and have never once seen it offered on a menu at a Mexican restaurant, or ever had it prepared by any of my friends or coworkers of Mexican descent. So I guess it's possible, but it's a well-kept secret.

Last edited by Alice The Goon; 12-07-2010 at 05:57 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 05:58 PM
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I've lived in Tucson for 15 years and have never once seen it offered on a menu at a Mexican restaurant, or ever had it prepared by any of my friends or coworkers of Mexican decent. So I guess it's possible, but it's a well-kept secret.
Odd. Pretty common around here among the Mexican immigrants. Mexican from Mexico City and the Yucatan, from what I've seen, prepare it.

Here's one recipe.

Here's Rick Bayless's take on it.

And Zarela Martinez.

Quote:
All Mexicans are familiar with picadillo, which is something like our version of hash but infinitely more versatile. The most elegant kind, a favorite filling or topping for all kinds of chiles, tacos or antojitos, features chopped or ground pork or beef (sometimes shredded cooked meat or chicken) with wonderful Mediterranean-inspired accents like olives, almonds, raisins, cumin, canela, and cloves.
I'm surprised you've never seen it, but these things can get quite regional.

Last edited by pulykamell; 12-07-2010 at 06:01 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 06:25 PM
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I don't think anyone has explained quesadillas yet, either. They're pretty simple: Put a whole bunch of cheese and maybe some other stuff on a tortilla, fold it over, and grill it (preferably with pressure on both sides) until the cheese melts and fuses it together. At least, that's the American version, but I think there are also omelet-like egg-based quesadillas in Mexico. In any event, it's the cheese that's important.

And in case you're wondering, a tamale is not a variant on a taco. It's basically cornbread, possibly with meat and/or vegetables mixed in, wrapped in a corn husk and baked.
Old 12-07-2010, 06:34 PM
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Originally Posted by pulykamell View Post
Odd. Pretty common around here among the Mexican immigrants. Mexican from Mexico City and the Yucatan, from what I've seen, prepare it.

Here's one recipe.

Here's Rick Bayless's take on it.

And Zarela Martinez.



I'm surprised you've never seen it, but these things can get quite regional.
Of course there's Mexican picadillo!! I use it to fill enchiladas, tacos, and gorditas. I hate the more Caribbean style that has sweet stuff like raisins, etc. The kind I make (and the kind I've seen most people use) is savory with chile & potatoes.

Last edited by hellpaso; 12-07-2010 at 06:37 PM. Reason: my recipe is most similar to the last one--but no chayote
Old 12-07-2010, 07:11 PM
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And in case you're wondering, a tamale is not a variant on a taco. It's basically cornbread, possibly with meat and/or vegetables mixed in, wrapped in a corn husk and baked.
No "possibly" about it, the filling is inside, not mixed with the masa, and tamales are steamed, not baked.
Old 12-07-2010, 07:16 PM
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Isn't it possible to have a tamale that's just corn, though, without the filling? Granted that you'd only make them that way if you were very poor and couldn't afford anything else, but wouldn't that still be a tamale?

And I stand corrected on the steaming vs. baked.
Old 12-07-2010, 08:37 PM
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Isn't it possible to have a tamale that's just corn, though, without the filling?
It has to have a filling. Tamales refer to more than one tamal (no such thing as a tamale.) No filling and it's just a hunk of steamed masa--

Last edited by hellpaso; 12-07-2010 at 08:38 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 08:43 PM
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Now I'm okay pointing out there's no such thing as a panini, either.

Last edited by Peremensoe; 12-07-2010 at 08:43 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 08:44 PM
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Which can be edible, but isn't a tamale. Got to be something inside.

What is open to interpretation. We had some abso-frakking-lutely amazing tamales last year that were filled with a chili-chocolate mixture that both sated and stoked. Whoever's grandmother made those is a truly blessed individual.
Old 12-07-2010, 09:07 PM
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It has to have a filling. Tamales refer to more than one tamal (no such thing as a tamale.) No filling and it's just a hunk of steamed masa--
That's not true -- for example, tamales de elote have no filling. The hispanic market down the street from me imports them frozen from Central America -- either El Salvador or Guatemala.
Old 12-07-2010, 09:19 PM
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That's not true -- for example, tamales de elote have no filling. The hispanic market down the street from me imports them frozen from Central America -- either El Salvador or Guatemala.
Yeah, I was going to say, but you beat me to it. Tamales do not at all have to be filled with anything. I've had some fantastic tamales that were just freshly made masa steamed in a plantain leaf.

ETA: Even Wikipedia gets it right:

Quote:
A tamale or tamal (Spanish: tamal, from Nahuatl: tamalli)[1] is a traditional Latin American dish made of masa (a starchy dough, often corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be further filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.
The thing is, for a pure masa tamale to be worth eating, it needs to be made with really fresh masa. There is a guy from the Yucatan I know who makes his own nixtamalized corn and grinds it into masa. The "fantastic tamales" made from just corn that I refer to above were made with some weird kind of black corn that this guy said was hard to find in the US, but particularly good for this dish.

Last edited by pulykamell; 12-07-2010 at 09:23 PM.
Old 12-07-2010, 09:45 PM
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That's not true -- for example, tamales de elote have no filling. The hispanic market down the street from me imports them frozen from Central America -- either El Salvador or Guatemala.
"Tamales de elote" literally means "ear of corn tamales." The masa is made from freshly ground sweet corn kernels, and as far as I know, they're not supposed to have any filling. I don't know if they make them in Guatemala, but they do make them in El Salvador. My mom sometimes buys a dozen at the Mexican supermarket deli or from a Salvadoran restaurant. They're delicious.

As far as the difference between types of dishes that involve wrapping something in a tortilla, has anyone brought up chilaquiles or enchiladas yet? Besides me, I mean. Not sure whether these count, but since they're made with tortillas, I thought I'd mention them. I used to patronize a catering truck that served these dishes in addition to tacos, burritos, etc. Lent was always an interesting time to eat there, because they would add fish tacos and fried potato tacos to the menu. The latter consisted of cooked potatoes wrapped in a corn tortilla, fried, and served with sour cream and green chili sauce. Greasy, delicious, and yet virtuous enough for Lent.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:24 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by acsenray View Post
And a burrito enchilada is a burrito with a spicy red sauce and cheese poured on top.
I've also seen that on a menu as a burrito suiza.
Old 12-07-2010, 10:57 PM
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Join Date: May 1999
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It's interesting to me that tacos can be made with flour tortillas. I would've said that a taco is (virtually) always made with a corn tortilla, whereas a burrito is (virtually) always made with a flour tortilla.
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