“I will never unsee this absolutely horrifying vegan al pastor,” a viral tweet from 2021 reads. The accompanying photo is a brown and green mass of mushroom and nopales dotted with red spice made by Evil Cooks, a food company based in Los Angeles. It’s a vegetable-based take on classic Mexican al pastor, usually made with pork.
At the time, most of the response validated the original critique, with many people calling vegetables disgusting and meat a natural thing to eat. Others said that vegans shouldn’t make anything that resembles meat if they don’t want to kill animals for their meals. What’s interesting is that al pastor is a tradition born of immigration, of cultural fusion and influence from Lebanese people who’d moved to Puebla and modeled it after their own famous lamb dish: shawarma. Al pastor tacos were even originally called “tacos árabes.” Couldn’t the use of vegetables represent another stage in that evolution? A necessary one toward meat not being at the center of each and every meal?
“Growing up, visiting taco shops on the weekend was my family’s religion, more so even than Catholicism,” writer Andrea Aliseda tells me. She grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, eating carne asada and al pastor tacos, competing with her brother to see who could eat more. In the years since, she’s become vegan, and after that viral tweet, she went to try the vegan al pastor herself.
“I studied the trompo, waiting for the moment when I’d see the taquero, Alex, carve out my tacos,” Aliseda says. A trompo is the vertical broiler on which pastor (and shawarma) are made. “The experience was incredibly satisfying. It took me back to being a kid, watching the taqueros move with quickness and precision.” The vegan al pastor was constructed with layers of mushroom, cabbage, eggplant, and onion. Aliseda grew up with a different type of al pastor that was red, while the one Evil Cooks was selling was black, made with the recado negro marinade from Yucatán. Aliseda’s explanation of the differences was interesting, because I had heard from others that the black color was “wrong,” not simply a regional expression.
Such claims about “authenticity” are something vegans from non-Western cultures struggle with, because even while much pre-Columbian cuisine in Mexico was plant-based, meat has become central for many. “There’s this sentiment that you’re not Mexican if you’re vegan,” Aliseda says.
In Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing, authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel recognize the inherent plant-forward nature of Mexican American cuisine. The text is a reclamation, as well as a statement on the fact that white people in the US don’t own vegetarian cooking, despite the narratives that have been sold over the last few decades. “We recognize the importance of Indigenous knowledge and ways of being in the world and believe in the need to dismantle colonial systems of knowledge,” they write.
The Indigenous scholar Margaret Robinson has written about the problem of constructing the ur-vegan as white when Indigenous foodways have been displaced by settler colonialism. In Meatsplaining: The Animal Agriculture Industry and the Rhetoric of Denial, she writes, “When veganism is constructed as white, Aboriginal people who eschew the use of animal products are depicted as sacrificing our cultural authenticity. This presents a challenge for those of us who view our veganism as ethically, spiritually, and culturally compatible with our indigeneity.”