It was mere weeks into the processed-cheese and ham-heavy cuisine of Uruguay when I began dreaming of tacos. Friends and I trekked to a wealthy suburb to investigate a rumor of a Mexican restaurant, only to discover poor imitations of enchiladas with more of the same processed ham and cheese.
Despite growing up in Seattle, the food I found myself missing when I lived abroad wasn’t the region’s signature salmon or an all-American hamburger. It was tacos, with their soft, pliable corn tortillas and well-seasoned fillings ― be they al pastor, carnitas or tinga de pollo ― the spicy salsas and showers of cilantro and chopped onions. And I wasn’t alone.
“I think tacos are the ultimate comfort food,” says Miami-born television chef Grace Ramirez, who felt the same way. When she lived in New Zealand around 2010, she began consulting for restaurants about how to make tacos. “Basically, it was a very selfish act because I wanted to have tacos!” she tells HuffPost. While she could make them herself (you can find her recipes in her cookbook, La Latina) ― and she did ― she also helped open three taco shops in New Zealand.
Tacos are no more the food of my own Seattle upbringing than they are of Ramirez’s Miami and Venezuelan one. Which is to say, they are our food by proximity, not by heritage. It seems a bit ironic that the food we miss most when abroad is a food with stronger ties to Mexico than the United States. But the heart ― and stomach ― want the foods that remind us of home, and the U.S. has nearly 60,000 Mexican restaurants, which accounts for almost one-tenth of restaurants in the country and makes them more common than pizzerias.
That’s not a surprise for Missy Witt, who took a similar path to Ramirez when stuck in a taco desert after moving to Israel eight years ago. Originally from Chicago, she grew up in a solid taco scene and even worked at a Mexican restaurant in New Orleans in college. But after she started keeping kosher, she had to make her own.
When she moved to Jerusalem, she realized she could use her taco skills to feed a need, opening Burrito Chai in the city’s Mahane Yehuda market. “Americans are addicted to tacos,” she says. Americans were her first and most loyal customers, and, like Ramirez, Witt admits she opened her taco joint in her own self-interest.
It seemed like the best way to feed herself, but she also found that others were grateful when it opened. “It felt like more than just good food; it was a community for Americans,” she tells HuffPost. In fact, when her shop closed after two years, people would almost cry when they discussed the loss with her.
Around the world, Americans have solved their taco woes by learning to cook, though not all as professionals. The problem taco fiends run into, however, is the lack of ingredients available to them.
For Georgia Freedman, the author of Cooking South of the Clouds, tortillas eluded her when she was living in China: When her husband made a trip to the States, she had him bring back Maseca (dried corn flour) and a tortilla press. “It was a homesick thing,” she tells HuffPost. “If you grow up in SoCal, nothing says home like a taco.” She thinks the lack of tacos are what made her long for them: “There’s something about not having any access to the comfort foods of your home that can make one fixate on them.”
But for many others, the missing ingredient is the hot sauce. Podcast host Rachel Belle (“Your Last Meal”) brought three bottles of Tapatio with her to Japan (“two for me and one to use as bribery to make a new friend!”), where she used it to top the tortillas she rolled out with tall cans of Asahi between trips to Osaka (three hours away) where there was a Mexican restaurant. In Israel, Witt solved the spice issues by getting a pepper dealer who could bring her ghost peppers and Carolina reapers that her chef would make into sauce.
Even in the foodie country of France, ski coach Rory Petrilli says, “I did NOT move there for the food.” Three and a half years in, she says, “I still miss tacos.” From her vacation in Costa Rica, she adds, “My bag is packed for my return home with four more hot sauces.”
And in nearby Italy, tour guide Coral Sisk says she longed for tacos so much in her first years away, she forced herself to forget them to protect herself. It wasn’t just the tacos themselves she missed, but “the places that serve them, whether taco truck or a hole-in-the-wall, where you feel like you’re in a special place.” Of course, she also dreams of the freshness of the salsa and perfectly ripened avocados and limes.
Without those basic ingredients, it’s hard to make a taco. But without any familiarity, it can be even harder. Mark Wilkins, an American working in Iceland, tells HuffPost that even though most of the ingredients are there, “Icelandic Mexican food restaurants seem to serve food that’s been created by an Icelander who looks at a photograph of the real thing and then guesses as to the ingredients.” That matched my own experience in Uruguay so closely that I almost cried in sympathy.
Similarly, Neil from Nashville ― who asked to be identified by just his first name to protect his privacy ― spent five years in Hong Kong as a banker and reports that there was good guacamole, great pico de gallo, well-seasoned meats and even cilantro. But the biggest issue was with the side dishes: Sticky, short-grain Asian rice and non-dairy cheese products (for the mostly lactose intolerant population there) just didn’t do the job.
“The most difficult thing for me, as far as being in London, is the lack of tacos AND the lack of respect for tacos,” tweeted travel writer Nneka Okona. Pressed for why, she tells HuffPost, “Most anything else I crave (read: junk food) I can easily find in London that tastes pretty good: cheeseburgers, pizza, fried chicken. But finding tacos that won’t taste terribly mediocre and make me sad seems to be a chore.” Cold cheese and sweet salsa haven’t inspired her to keep looking.
But Ramirez is hopeful that taco culture around the world might be changing. “Before, the only two places where you could find amazing tacos were in Mexico and the U.S.,” she says. Now, she’s seen them popping up everywhere from New Zealand, where she helped consult, to Madrid. Others report the arrival of real, Mexican-style tacos in Kenya, Geneva and Barcelona.
“I think the world is definitely getting on the taco-craze wagon,” Ramirez says. But until then, Americans abroad will keep yearning for their tacos.