The Washington Post
You can have it with jackfruit or chicken, but tinga is all about the sauce
Red and slick, tinga is both a preparation and dish, a saucy base flavored with sweet onions, tomatoes and chipotle chiles in which roasted and shredded meat is simmered until it’s fall-apart tender. I first tasted the Mexican braise when I worked in restaurant kitchens, where it made a frequent appearance at 4 o’clock family meal.
“My mother has been cooking it ever since I can remember,” says chef David Andres Peña. “We’d always have it at my aunt’s house, at family gatherings, lunch, dinner, whenever.” Because he grew up around family members who made it so frequently, Peña learned to make it without being taught, almost as if by osmosis. So, when he started working in restaurants and was eventually tasked with making family meal, he’d turn to tinga.
“Everywhere I went, I made it, and people never got tired of it,” Peña says. “They’d actually request it, like, ‘Oh, David’s cooking? Tell him to make the tinga.’” Peña became so synonymous with tinga that one day while everyone was eating family meal together, one of his fellow cooks said, jokingly, “So David, when are you going to open up La Tingeria?”
A few years later, Peña turned that idea into a reality with La Tingeria, his food truck, and a soon-to-open bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Falls Church, Va.
Some of the earliest printed recipes for tinga appear in the 1881 cookbook “La Cocinera Poblana,” so it’s thought to have originated in Puebla, a city about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. But tinga is probably much older, and, owing to its versatility and ease, the dish is now made at restaurants and in homes all over Mexico.
In Puebla, it’s often made with pork; in Mexico City, tinga de pollo tops tostadas and fills tamales. It can also be made with beef or lamb; along the coasts, fish or shellfish meld into the onion and chile-tinged sauce.
For Lucio Villa, an engineer at Vox Media (and a former colleague), the smell of tinga de pollo brings back memories of going to church on Sundays in Compton, Calif., with his family. “After church there’d be all of these stalls outside, with vendors selling all kinds of food; pozole on cold days, ice cream on hot days … and I’d always go for the tinga,” he says. It’s also a dish his parents made for weeknight meals.
So, when he moved away from Southern California for work and grew homesick, tinga was the first recipe he learned how to cook. He has made it for countless dinner parties, sometimes adapting it to be vegan by using pulled jackfruit — as the recipe below suggests — instead of chicken. During the pandemic, Villa’s been making tinga more often. “I make a big batch of it in my Instant Pot, and then serve it over rice or with tortillas or have it for lunch,” he says. “It’s just so easy.”
The base for tinga, a red sauce usually made from onions, garlic, tomatoes and chipotles in adobo, is all in the technique. Some cooks, like Villa, prefer to saute the onions just until they’re translucent, so that they bring a touch of astringency to the dish. At Guisados in Los Angeles, where tinga is the third most popular dish on the menu, cooks fry the onions in chorizo until they’re brown and crisp. “I guess you could say that’s the secret to our tinga,” owner Armando De La Torre Jr. says. “The little bit of pork adds so much flavor.”
At La Tingeria, Peña makes beef and chicken tinga with halal meat, but says the key to his recipe is the caramelized onions. “I like to take my time with the onions, they should be really dark and sweet, so that they balance the heat from the chiles,” he says. “I get some customers who say they don’t even like onions or spice or chiles, but then they taste our tinga and say they love it.”
This recipe calls for canned jackfruit in brine, which can be found at most supermarkets, or cooked chicken, making it ideal for when you have leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken.
Though it was developed for pulled chicken or jackfruit, it will also work with simply seasoned pulled pork, beef, turkey or even pulled mushrooms. The sauce would be nice over roasted or grilled white fish or steamed or sauteed shellfish, too.
No matter how you make tinga, you’ll have to decide how you want to serve it: In a taco, on a tostada, over rice or in a sandwich? With shredded cabbage or lettuce for crunch? More salsa for another layer of heat? Fresh lime is nice on the side, as is a dollop of crema or sour cream.
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