The burrito. Ever wondered how this comforting food came to be? Who thought up the concept of a rolled tortilla packed with goodness that you can conveniently eat by hand – and even as a quick meal on the go? Turns out, the burrito has quite an interesting history. Keep reading to discover the roots of the burrito, who (or what) inspired its name, and how it evolved into the modern-day dish so popular across the globe.
The history of the burrito begins thousands of years ago
The roots of the burrito go back thousands of years. As early as 10,000 B.C., using corn tortillas to wrap foods was a common practice among the Mesoamerican cultures living in the region that is known as Mexico today. Historians believe this was the precursor to modern tortilla-based dishes like tacos and burritos.
In 1895, a dish that could be identified as the burrito appeared in the book “Diccionario de Mejicanismos” (Dictionary of Mexican Spanish) by Cuban writer Félix Ramos y Duarte. He described it as a rolled tortilla filled with meat or other ingredients. However, it is unclear whether he was referring to a taco or a burrito. The actual burrito might not have been invented until the early 20th century.
Was the name “burrito” inspired by donkeys – or little children?
But when we try to pinpoint the origin story of the burrito, things become a little murky. A very persistent theory alleges that the inventor of the burrito was a man named Juan Méndez, who sold tacos in the city of Ciudad Juárez during the Mexican Revolution, between 1910-1920. According to that story, Méndez rode around on a donkey, and wrapped the food in large flour tortillas to keep it warm. The “food of the donkey” became very popular and earned the ingenious invention the name “burrito” (“little donkey” in Spanish).
Another popular theory tells of an unnamed street vendor in Ciudad Juárez, who created the burrito in the 1940s, to sell to poor children at a nearby school. His affectionate nickname for the children was “burritos”, slang for “slow” or “dimwitted”, and that was how the food got its name.
There is one more theory, according to which the burrito was invented in Sonora (a region in northwest Mexico) as a food that was easy to carry around while traveling. Since traveling was commonly done by donkey, the burrito was named after the travel companion. Gustavo Arellano, who wrote the book “Taco: USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” and is an expert on the topic, believes this theory is the most plausible, since Sonora is the region of Mexico known for growing wheat, which is the main ingredient in flour tortillas.
The burrito keeps evolving
The original Mexican burritos (which are still consumed in Mexico today) are small and thin. They are filled with basic ingredients like meat, fish, cheese, beans, rice and hot peppers – but never all together, just one or two of these ingredients in a single burrito. Migrant workers from Mexico had possibly brought burritos with them to the United States between the 1940s and the 1960s. Americans quickly fell in love with the flavourful dish, and taquerias serving burritos started springing up in Southern California in the following decades.
The arrival of the burrito the States helped catalyze its transformation into the big, juicy super-burrito we know today. The Mission-style burrito, also known as the San Francisco burrito, was invented by El Faro, a grocery store in San Francisco’s Mission District, in 1961. El Faro’s owner, Febronio Ontiveros, claims to have come up with the extra-large burrito that contained rice, guacamole and sour cream alongside the standard fillings of meat, beans and cheese.
Of course, that’s not how the burrito story ends. Sixty years later, burritos in dizzying varieties are available in restaurants and grocery stores across the globe. Pretty incredible for a dish that started as a functional meal for travelers!