Barbacoa is a form of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean with the Taíno people, from which the term “barbecue” derives. In contemporary Mexico, it generally refers to meats or 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.
In the U.S., barbacoa is often prepared with parts from the heads of cattle, such as the cheeks. In northern Mexico, it is also sometimes made from beef head, but more often it is prepared from goat meat (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”, as well as many other words related to ranching and Tex-Mex cowboy or vaquero 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 many Mexican immigrants living there have introduced this dish. Barbacoa is also well known in Honduras.
A traditional Mexican way of eating barbacoa is having it served on warm corn tortillas with guacamole and salsa for added flavour; the tacos are often served in the banana leaves on which they were cooked, often eaten with diced onions, chopped coriander and a squeeze of lime juice. See Barbacoa Beef for the recipe.
The large food court of the tianguis (public market) of Chiconcuac in the state of Mexico, outside of Mexico City, seats hundreds of diners who are served barbacoa de borrego (mutton barbecue) and other regional specialties by dozens of open-air restaurants.
Across the México-Pachuca highway, many barbacoa stands at the road’s side serve drivers. The meat traditionally comes from the outside cheek of cattle.
Chipotle Mexican Grill in the United States, Canada, France and the UK is also a well-known restaurant that serves beef called “barbacoa”.