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The Navajo Taco: A New Mexican Staple

After the first week at Tufts, I was fairly impressed by the diverse foods offered in the dining halls as well as the Boston area. From sushi at Hodgdon to the brand-new kosher deli at the campus center, it seemed as if almost everything was available for consumption. Whether or not the food represents various cultures authentically is different matter, but some justification can be made for effort. As with diversity in general, not every group has the opportunity to bring their food to the table. Although I can’t speak for all the groups whose food is not represented at Tufts or in the Boston area, I would like to make an attempt to introduce the Tufts community to one dish from a culture that is virtuality nonexistent in this region of the country: the Navajo taco. “Taco” may ring a bell, but I can assure you it’s far from what you’re thinking.

Try to imagine this scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico: the sunset brings a pink glow on the Sandia mountains and young man finishes a long day of school, only to receive a phone call from his grandma that his great aunt is in town. Fun fact: sandia is Spanish for watermelon. Regardless of whatever happened that day, the young man smiles knowing that the family will come together to eat authentic Navajo tacos.

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Let’s cut to the chase – the Navajo taco is made of fry bread, ground beef, pinto beans, chile, and cheese. Two of those ingredients are especially unique to this dish: fry bread and chile. Fry bread, essentially fried dough, is the foundation and is typically made with Blue Bird Flour. You can make it with any flour, but Blue Bird is considered one of the common reasons why the fry bread tastes so heavenly. Chile (the pepper, not the country or the non-related tex mex essential) is the staple food of New Mexico, and its use in most New Mexican dishes give the pepper an exclusive status similar to Florida oranges and Idaho potatoes. By  combining all of the listed ingredients, you’re bound to immerse yourself in unknown flavors that invade and conquer everything you thought you knew about southwestern food.

You’re probably wondering, is it even possible to make such as renowned dish? Fortunately, it is nearly possible! Here’s the basics.

Ingredients

4 cups of flour (Blue Bird preferred)
4 tablespoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of lard or shortening
1 or 2 cups of hot water (not too hot)

Ground beef
Pinto beans
Shredded lettuce
Chopped tomato
Red or green chiles
Grated cheese

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Directions

Uno. In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients and mix well; add little bit of water at a time and stir until a soft dough forms.
Dos.  Knead dough for 5 minutes or until dough becomes smooth and elastic. Let it sit for a few minutes.
Tres. Knead it again. Divide dough into small balls and roll it out until it’s round like a pizza.
Cuatro. In a large skillet or deep frying pan heat 2 cups of shortening or lard until bubbling. Drop the round flat dough in the hot oil and deep fry until golden brown, turning it once.
Cinco. Drain on absorbent paper towels.
Seis. Top with cooked ground beef, pinto beans, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, red or green chile and sprinkle with grated cheese.

The only setback to attempting to make this in New England is the unavailability of actual chile. However, if you were to contact a certain New Mexican at Tufts, I’m sure he’d have some connections (as well as the most addicting salsa in the world – but we’ll save that for another time).

I must also warn you about the nutritional value of this dish: it’s not heathy. This dish is consumed without thinking about calories, considering that fry bread is made with lard. Nevertheless, these wonders are typically eaten just once or twice a month (but I won’t judge if you somehow end up eating more than that), so just remember to skip your healthy food tracker on that special night.

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Of course, the best Navajo tacos are homemade; you can’t beat the flawless cooking of family members who have “the magic touch.” If that’s not an option, the New Mexico State Fair includes a Native American culture area that hosts a popular Indian taco contest. “Indian” is the common term for this dish, but refers to all the other tacos that aren’t Navajo. A few restaurants such as Pueblo Harvest Cafe and Twisters (as seen in Breaking Bad – had to mention it) offer versions of the taco but you may find some disappointment compared to homemade ones. Earl’s, a restaurant located in Gallup, New Mexico, is as close as you can get to being truly authentic as it is near the heart of the Navajo Reservation.

Because nearby tribes offer the same dish with different titles, I can only vouch for the deliciousness of the Navajo taco. Overall, it’s unlike anything you’ll taste at Tufts. Don’t expect it to become the next big thing on campus due to the scarcity of key ingredients, but get some friends together and try it out! At the very least, you now have a conversation starter at awkward parties, though I only hope you bring physical proof to carry on that conversation and introduce the Navajo taco to someone new.

– Kyle Paul

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