A friend wrote to ask about arrachera. I’m going to hazard some guesses but I bet some of you know a lot more than I do. Please chime in.
Arrachera is inescapable now in Mexico. Every supermarket has it in plastic packets. When you cut into the packet the curing liquid runs out and you can unfold a long thin piece of meat with various bits of membrane attached. If you grill it, it turns out tender no matter what. And it’s pre-seasoned. No wonder that it’s a standard in restaurants.
Home cooks find it a boon. One of my friends told me yesterday that she was going to chop 10 lbs of arrachera, plus bacon, onions, bacon, and strips of chile poblano. It’s her turn to provide the dinner for the ladies of the Rotary and she was going to grill it all today (I suspect on her big solid metal grill) so they could make tacos.
And for many visitors to Mexico too, it’s just great. Try googling Chowhound arrachera. I’m not actually a great fan of arrachera as neither its taste nor its texture thrill me. But it is a phenomenon.
So what are we talking about here?
I don’t think it was around in central Mexico when I arrived between 12 and 15 years ago. There weren’t many supermarkets then, at least not in medium sized towns. You went to the market. There meat came in three grades and three prices: essentially solid meat, meat with fat, and bone and gristle. Of course if you knew what you were doing and spoke Spanish (which then I didn’t) you could be a good bit more specific.
Nor do you find it in Mexican cookbooks, though Mexicans still cook confidently without cookbooks. And there’s no entry for it in one of my most invaluable handbooks, the Diccionario del Español Usual en México which does have lots of food words and that first came out in 1992.
So I think modern arrachera spread with supermarkets. Those bags are ideal for super marketing. I think it came from the north of the country where most of the commercial beef is raised. I think it spread with its first cousin, marinaded but not dried cecina (thin sliced beef or pork). And it’s related to the Texas dish, fajitas (about which I have a story I must tell you sometime). And to its Mexican cousin, carne asada, all of which I suspect of being pretty recent inventions.
Ricardo Muñoz in his great Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana describes the cut as being the part that runs along the ribs, 6 kgs per animal, as being from the north, and as being grilled simply brushed with a little oil, salt and pepper. Great.
Supermarket arrachera has experienced a good bit more than oil, salt and pepper, perhaps one of those tenderizing machines and certainly one of those tenderizers made from papaya.
And that about exhausts my expertise. Please chime in.
ADDENDUM: Have other countries used sealed (cryovac?) wrap to sell meats that have been seasoned and/or tenderized? I simply don’t know. If you’ve got other examples it would be a nice illustration of how new technologies are used in unanticipated ways.