Barbacoa is believed to have originated centuries ago in Barbados, an island country in the West Antilles of the Caribbean. The word “barbados” is derived from the words “Los Barbadoes” meaning “the bearded ones,” a name created by 16th century Portuguese explorers to describe giant bearded fig trees covering many Caribbean islands.
It is widely believed the West Indies native Taino people, a subgroup of the South American Arawaks, first used green, fire-resistant bearded fig branches for cooking. They marinated foods in tropical herbs and spices to enhance natural flavors and preserve them after cooking. The Tainos called their preparations “barabicu,” or “sacred firepit,” that over time became “barbecue.” These cooking methods were superb at keeping their foods from prematurely spoiling.
The Barbacoa style of cooking was eventually taken to Mexico, where it still refers to meats slow-roasted over an open fire, or more traditionally, in a fire pit covered with succulent leaves of the maguey plant (also known as agave or century plant.)
Mexico’s original Barbacoa used the country’s many and varied molés (pronounced “mol-ehs”) and salsas, the first barbecue sauces. Molé is a complex, rich thick sauce, used to accompany meats. It is made from a variety of chiles, onions, garlic, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, sesame seeds, several types of nuts and a small amount of chocolate, the best-known ingredient, which contributes richness to the sauce without adding much sweetness.
Traditionally, game, turkey, and fish, along with beans and other side dishes, were slow cooked in a pit for many hours. Following the introduction of cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, and chickens by the Spanish, the meat of these animals was also prepared in the traditional indigenous style.
Along the roads in Texcoco, a rural area approximately 15 miles east of Mexico City, Barbacoa stands and small restaurants serve this favorite food. The region is generally recognized as the home of barbacoa in Mexico.
The large food court of the tianguis (public market) of Texcoco in the state of Mexico, outside of Mexico City, seats hundreds of diners who are served barbacoa de borrego (lamb barbecue) and other regional specialties by dozens of open-air restaurants.