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Barbacoa originates in Mexico and generally refers to meats or a whole sheep slow-cooked over an open fire, or more traditionally, in a hole dug in the ground covered with maguey leaves, although the interpretation is loose, and in the present day and in some cases may refer to meat steamed until tender.

Left: Barbacoa.

Barbacoa de cabeza is a specialty of slow cooked cow head that arose in the ranching lands of northern Mexico after the Spanish conquest. Except for cochinita pibil (a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish), one of the common characteristics of Mexican barbacoa is that marinades are not used and sauces are not applied until the meat is fully cooked .

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Throughout Mexico, from pre-Mexican times to the present, barbacoa was the original Mexican barbecue, utilizing the many and varied moles (the generic name for several sauces used in Mexican cuisine) and salsa, which were the first barbecue sauces. Game, turkey, and fish along with beans and other side dishes were slow cooked together in a pit for many hours.

Left: Slow cooking of barbacoa in a pit.

Following the introduction of cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, and chickens by the Spanish, the meat of these animals was cooked utilizing the traditional indigenous barbacoa style of cooking.

In the U.S., barbacoa is often prepared with parts from the head of a cow, such as the cheeks. In northern Mexico, barbacoa is also sometimes made with the head of a cow, but more often it is prepared with goat meat or cabrito. In central Mexico the meat of choice is lamb, and in the Yucatan their traditional version, cochinita pibil (pit-style pork) is prepared with pork.

Barbacoa was later adopted into the cuisine of the southwestern United States by way of Texas, which had formerly been a part of northern Mexico. The word transformed in time to "barbecue", together with many other words related to ranching and Tex-Mex cowboy life.

Considered a specialty meat, some meat markets only sell barbacoa on weekends or holidays in certain parts of south Texas and in all of Mexico. Barbacoa is also popular in Florida, as there are many Mexican immigrants living there who have introduced this dish. Barbacoa is also well known in Honduras.

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, the meat or the tacos are often served in the banana leaves they were cooked in. It is also eaten with onions, diced cilantro and a squirt of lime.


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