The Spanish word for head, cabeza is also a Mexican street food custom that lets the customer choose which part of an animal's head to use as meat for his or her tacos. Available at taquerias and in street trucks around the country as well as several places abroad, tacos de cabeza can include a range of parts from the faces of cows or goats, which have been steamed intact overnight or cooked slowly in an oven to make them as tender as possible. These untoward proteins are typically shredded and disguised in traditional taco attire: a hard corn or soft flour tortilla on the outside, with ingredients like chopped onion, chiles and cilantro on the inside. A slew of distinct Mexican salsas are regularly doused onto the top.
As can be assumed, cabeza is one of the cheaper taco options. Many in Mexico, however, still consider it a delicacy. According to the Mex Connect Web site, these tacos are especially popular in more depressed areas of metropolitan Mexico City. They are also well received in the regions of Baijo and Sonora, where people most often consume them for breakfast.
Parts like brains, tongue, cheeks, lips and even eyes are regularly offered individually. A medley also is commonly offered, called surtido. Depending on the part, it may be shredded, chopped or left intact to stare back at you — in the case of the eyeballs. When ordered in a formal restaurant the cabeza is often brought to the table on a platter, and diners are encouraged to sample the parts they would like to try.
According L.A. Weekly food writer Farid Zadi, a noted culinary instructor, the goat brains he sampled tasted like mushy sweet breads, while eyeballs were like chewing on a giant tendon. It is customary to strip a little of each part for the taco, including a little tongue, some crispy skin, the tender meat from around the mouth, and even some brains and fatty cheek for a range of flavors in a single taco.
Zadi's recipe for tacos de cabeza does not involve an overnight steaming. Instead, he rubs the heads, inside and out, with coriander, cumin, salt and pepper, and then cooks them on a baking sheet in an oven at 350°F (about 177°C). Keeping the heads on one cheek, they are regularly turned to cook evenly, which takes as long as three-and-a-half hours. For cow head, even more time is needed for the meat to cook.
Safety of Cabeza Meat
Consumers were advised to avoid cow brains during the time that bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called mad cow disease, was a common problem. However, changes in animal feeding regulations have made the disease less common and cow brain is now considered safe to eat.
Where To Buy a Cow Head for Cabeza
Your local butcher shop or Mexican grocery store may have whole cow heads for sale. If not, try finding a cattle ranch that sells meat directly to the public. If there is a traditional Mexican restaurant in your area that serves cabeza, try asking where it gets its meat from.
Substitute for Cow's Head in Cabeza Recipes
If you can't find cows' heads for sale in your area, but you want to give making cabeza a try, you can approximate the experience by substituting meats that are easier to find, such as beef cheek and tongue. Some grocery stores also carry brains.
What Tacos De Sesos Are Like
Thinly sliced sesos look similar to cauliflower. Sesos are usually made from the brains of goats or cows. Sesos have a soft, silky, custard-like texture. Crunchy and fresh toppings, such as cilantro, onions and lime are used to contrast the soft texture and rich flavor of sesos.
Sesos are made by boiling the animal head until the meat falls off the bone. A heavy, sharp knife is used to break open the skull to access the brain. The cooks then season and braise or grill the meat and serve it with warm corn tortillas.
Other Types of Taco Meat
While many U.S. consumers associate tacos with ground beef. Cabeza is just one of the many other types of meats used in traditional Mexican tacos.
Al pastor translates as "shepherd style." It is usually made with sliced pork seasoned with adobo and cooked on a vertical spit called a trompo. This style was adapted from a cooking technique Lebanese immigrants brought to Mexico in the early 20th century.
Barbacoa is a Mexican version of barbeque. The meat is traditionally cooked in an earthen pit. Modern preparations steam or braise cuts from cow heads.
Carne Asada is thin-sliced grilled meat, usually beef.
Carnitas means "little meats" and is usually made from simmered and fried pork butt.
Lengua is a type of cabeza made from braised and chopped beef tongue.
Pollo is chicken.
Puerco refers to pork.
Tinga is shredded meat cooked in a chipotle or another sauce. It is usually made with chicken meat.
Chorizo is a type of sausage made from highly seasoned ground or chopped pork. It is usually seasoned with chile peppers and vinegar.
Sesos is a type of cabeza made from cow's brain.
Cachete is a type of cabeza made from beef cheek.
Ojo is a type of cabeza made from cows' eyes.
Tripas are the lining of a cow's stomach. It has a chewy texture and is often served crispy.
Buche is made from pork stomach slow-cooked in lard. It is not as chewy as tripas but has a chewier texture than most taco meats. The texture resembles cooked tofu.
Other Dishes That Use Head Meat
Tacos de cabeza is not the only dish that utilizes the head of an animal. These are a few other dishes that utilize head meat.
Caldo De Cabeza De Carnero
Caldo de cabeza de carnero is also known as ram's head soup. It is a traditional dish of Peru. It is made with boiled ram's head, potatoes, garlic, onions and salt. The soup has an assertive flavor from a combination of meat and spices.
Head cheese is a European dish featuring a gelatinous sausage made from the head, knuckle and foot of a pig or calf. It is usually set in aspic and eaten cold. It is referred to as queso de cabeza in Chile and Colombia. In some Scandinavian countries, it is served as part of the traditional Christmas meal.
Scrapple has its roots in the rural parts of the Mid-Atlantic United States. It is a combination of pork meat mixed with offal, such as pork head, heart and liver. It is boiled until tender and then finely minced and mixed with flour and cornmeal to form a slurry. It is seasoned with black pepper, sage and thyme and then formed into loaves, sliced and fried. It is traditionally served as a breakfast dish.