All photos by the author.

'French Tacos' Are Not Tacos

Sorry, Morocco. Save for the tortillas, there's nothing Mexican about them.

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May 12 2017, 3:59pm

All photos by the author.

There's a new fast-food craze in Morocco. It's tacos. But no, not Mexican tacos—the French variety.

Tacos à la française, or French tacos, first appeared in Casablanca with the opening of Tacos de Lyon. Then, when Tangier opened its first mall last year, inside—a present within a present—were the region's first French taco joints. Three of them. Their arrival was treated with the same buzz as a visiting pop star, and people began commuting from all over the city, and even from other towns like Tétouan and Asilah, to try "tacos."

"I love it," said Omar Bouassab, a 23-year-old Moroccan. "It's my favorite food at the mall." Bouassab works at one of the mall's perfume shops six days a week. Five of those days he eats French tacos for lunch.

But during Bouassab's impassioned praise of French tacos, he sometimes dropped the "French." When I asked Bouassab if he could tell me the difference between tacos ( á la Mexico) and Tacos de France, he drew a blank.

"I think the Mexican one is spicier."

All photos by the author.

I went up to one of the mall's taco franchises, Planet Roll Tacos: Le Vrai Tacos Française, and asked the same question of the guy behind the counter. Something that looked like consternation passed over his face. "I don't know exactly what a Mexican taco is."

The truth is, French tacos are about as Mexican as French fries are French. The French taco is more like a shawarma that's been dressed in Belgian sauces, tossed with French fries, smuggled into a burrito shell, and passed through a panini press—twice. The only Mexican thing about them is the tortilla wrapping.

French taco filling options typically include diced meats, chicken nuggets, sausage, and cordon bleu. After choosing the meat(s) comes the difficult part: choosing the sauce(s). At the Tanger City Mall, Tacos de France had 19 different Belgian sauces on display, with names like Fish-to-Fish, Magic Onion, and Samuraï Sauce. Between the meats, sauces, and other optional fillings, the number of custom filling combinations reaches into the thousands.

But with so much going into these tortilla shells there isn't much room left for veggies, so most French tacos end up going without. The end result is a dense, Tempur-Pedic-like pillow of meat and fries held together with a warm sheet of tortilla.

The origins of French tacos, far from being Hispanic, are Lyonnaise. They appeared in Lyon in the mid-2000s. After gaining popularity in the provinces for several years, French taco franchises like O'Taco and Tacos Avenue decided to make a charge on Paris, where they are now making inroads into the American-dominated fast-food scene. In turn, Moroccan entrepreneurs have picked up on the craze and have brought back to the Maghreb with them. There, the word "taco" seems to be turning into a French word.

In the game of culinary telephone, misnomers are frequent. The Russian salad корейская морковь ( koreyskaya morkov)—literally "Korean carrots"—doesn't actually exist in Korea but was devised by Koreans who were displaced by the Soviet regime in the 1930s. The Spaniards did something similar to the Russians, taking оливье (Olivier) salad and inventing ensaladilla rusa. In the case of the French taco, is the appropriation grievous enough to put a bad taste in our mouths as we eat? I caught up with Ouardane Jouannot, a French-born researcher, activist, and foodie, to try and break ground in the nascent field of taco ethics.

"The name was picked in complete disregard and ignorance of what a taco is," Jouannot affirms. While the origins of the taco are debated, documentation of maize flatbread "tortillas" date back to the Spanish arrival in the Americans in the early 16th century. Many variations have been developed in Mexico, such as tacos de pescado and tacos al pastor, (which has shawarma as an ancestor), but tacos à la française has nothing to do with this lineage. The name works as a kind of marketing bait-and-switch, drawing people with the promise of a Mexican culinary icon and then selling them something completely different.

On the other hand, Jouannot points out that claims of cultural appropriation are often most serious when they involve histories of unequal power dynamics such as colonialism between the appropriating culture and the origin culture. "The French don't have a strong power dynamic with Mexico. We didn't colonize it … We haven't elected a president on the [slogan] 'build a wall.'"

Still, another camp might argue that what is really wrong with the name "French taco" are the cultural influences absent from the name. If Mexican cuisine can be credited with contributing the tortilla shell to the French taco, then what about the influence of Middle Eastern shawarma? The Italian panini? Or Belgian fries and sauces?

At the end of the day, Jouannot says, "it's kind of up to the [origin] culture to decide if they're OK with it."

In the increasingly globalized world, the French Taco is just one of countless hybrid innovations produced by constant cultural and culinary commingling. Whether or not the name is legit, the food itself is most definitely lit.