Barbacoa’s History: Local chef takes a walk down memory lane

If you’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley area for years, you may know the drill of waking up every Sunday early in the morning: going to make a line at a local restaurant, buying barbacoa to eat it with your family, or sometimes even with your friends at an afterparty, adding cilantro, onions, green hot sauce, drink a coke and successfully going on with your day.

While usually in this area residents are used to “Mexican barbacoa del Norte,” which is made of beef, the types of barbacoa vary from area to area since it was originated back in the pre-Hispanic era by the Mayas.

“The Mexican barbacoa came from the Mayas; it is the original one … What was incredible about it is that the first time they ever wrote about it was in 1518 and it was the first book they wrote about the Mayan cuisine,” Chef Celia Galindo said. “Barbacoa is probably one of the first recipes that ever existed.”

Chef Galindo explained there are five types of barbacoa: The Mexican one, the Taina, the Small Animals, the African and the Serrano. She added the Mexican one has different styles depending on the region in Mexico.

“Depending on the region, the animal and or the spice that they use changes. We have the beef, lamb, chicken, goat, armadillo, rat, fish, deer, snake, and iguana. But they also do it with turkey,” she said. “There’s a real famous turkey barbacoa in the main city next to the Templo Mayor … they are amazing.”

When it comes to the meaning of the barbacoa, the local chef said there are two meanings and it depends on the way it is cooked. She said the Mayas called it “Baalbak’Kaab,” which means cooking under the ground and that’s basically the Mexican one in el pozo [pit]. The Taina means ‘Barabicu,’ which means above ground. In Puerto Rico for example they cook it above ground, she said.

Freshly prepared traditional Mexican steamed brisket barbacoa, salsa, lime, tostadas and a tortilla warmer is seen at Brownsville Chef Celia Galindo’s restaurant kitchen at Gourmet Central by Cel, in downtown Brownsville, Texas. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

“In Puerto Rico, and there is also a couple of areas here, where it is cooked above ground. What they do is they put pieces of wood, bring it up 5 meters and they put the grill on top of the fire because since it is an island, is full of rats,” she said laughing.

Galindo said she usually likes to put cachete and brisket, but she does not always do so. She said sometimes she uses shoulder or something else but the cachete [cheek] is what gives the grasita to the meat with the brisket making it a little dryer.

When asked about some of the memories she has about barbacoa, the local chef recalled one time when she traveled to Mexico City with her family after just getting married and she had barbacoa there. She said she thought it was going to taste like the one in Brownsville, but it was lamb barbacoa and tasted so different that she had to order a plate of carnitas instead.

Joe Olivares, from left, prepares to bite into a homemade barbacoa taco during a traditional family Sunday barbacoa in Brownsville, Texas along with Michael Ramirez, Corie Olivares Ramirez, Lydia Olivares, and Sal and Olivia the children of Michael and Corie Olivares Ramirez. (Miguel Roberts/The Browbnsville Herald via AP)

“I lived in Mexico City for many years but I always stayed away from barbacoa. So that was my first time and I was ‘our barbacoa in Brownsville is so much better’,” she said.