Traditionally made using beef skirt steak, fajitas are a Tex-Mex classic, generally served sizzling alongside onions and peppers, then wrapped in flour or corn tortillas and accompanied by toppings such as guacamole, sliced avocado, sour cream, salsa, cheese, and refried beans.
While the term ‘fajita’ is not known to have appeared in print until the early 1970s, the first culinary evidence of the dish dates back to at least the 1930s with roots in the Rio Grande Valley, on the Texas-Mexico border. During cattle roundups, cows were butchered regularly to feed the hands and less desirable items were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as partial payment. These cuts included the likes of the hide, head, entrails, and skirt. Through necessity, the vaqueros ended up making good use of the skirt steak, and thus fajitas (as they’re now known) were born.
Given the fact that a cow carcass only contains four skirt steaks, the tradition of grilling the skirt remained hyper regional and fairly obscure for years. During September 1969, the first commercial fajita concession stand was established at a rural celebration in Kyle, Texas, and the dish quickly became popular. Also in 1969, fajitas were introduced to the menu at the Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, Texas, by Otilia Garza who’s credited with adding the signature sizzling plate presentation that’s remained typical for over 50 years. Later, in 1982, German-born chef George Weidmann put “sizzling fajitas” on the menu of the Hyatt Regency in Austin’s restaurant and sales of fajitas pushed the restaurant to become the chain’s most profitable. Today, they remain a mainstay at Hyatt hotels.
Due to a boom in popularity at American chain restaurants, fajitas also became popular in the UK during the 1990s, thanks to Tex-Mex restaurant groups such as Chiquito and less than remarkable packet mixes becoming available in major supermarkets. Yet the more popular fajitas became, the less likely they were to use skirt steak, which still has a fairly undesirable reputation in the UK. Instead, alternatives such as prawn, vegetable, and chicken fajitas are especially popular.
While the dish is traditionally made with skirt steak, this chicken fajitas recipe is simple to follow at home, requiring very few ingredients (most of which are store cupboard staples) and ready in just 35 minutes. While thighs are resolutely the chicken’s best large cut, this recipe calls for a mixture of thigh and breast. You can buy the portions individually, or save money by buying a whole chicken and removing the breasts and thighs. You’ll also be left with two drumsticks and wings for another recipe, plus the carcass which will provide the basis for great stocks and soups. The chicken pieces are then spiced with smoked paprika, cumin, chilli, and a pinch of cinnamon, plus oregano (Mexican ideally). They’re then fried alongside strips of onion and peppers before being wrapped in tortillas alongside optional fillings such as avocado, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, refried beans, and cheese.
- Large mixing bowl
- Cast-iron skillet or large frying pan
- Large saucepan
- 4-6 flour or corn tortillas
- 2 chicken thighs skinned and boned
- 2 chicken breasts skinned
- 1 small brown onion
- 1 small red onion
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 green bell pepper
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp chilli flakes I like ancho, arbol, or pasilla
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp oregano use Mexican oregano, ideally
- 2 tsp sugar
- Neutral cooking oil such as vegetable or rapeseed oil
- Optional toppings such as sliced avocado, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, cheese, or refried beans
- To begin, cut the chicken pieces into roughly equal-sized strips and add to a large mixing bowl alongside the smoked paprika, ground cumin, chilli, cinnamon, dried oregano, and a generous pinch of salt. Mix until combined, then add a healthy splash of cooking oil. Mix again and leave to marinate for 20-30 minutes.
- While the chicken is marinating, roughly slice the onions and de-seed the peppers and cut into strips.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet or large frying pan until screaming hot and add the onions. Cook for 2-3 minutes, turning often, until lightly coloured, then transfer to a large saucepan and continue to cook over low heat, stirring often.
- Add the peppers, skin-side down, to the hot skillet and cook over high heat until the skin blisters. This should take 2-3 minutes. Turn the peppers over and continue to cook for a minute or two.
- Add the peppers to the saucepan with the onions and add 2 teaspoons of sugar. Increase the heat and stir often for a minute until the sugar dissolves and the onions and peppers begin to caramelise. Add a splash of water to deglaze the pan and continue to cook on high heat until the water dissolves. Once dissolved, reduce the heat to its lowest setting.
- While the water is dissolving, add the chicken to the hot skillet and cook for around 5-6 minutes over high heat, turning just once or twice. To check the chicken is cooked, tear in half at the thickest part of a thigh piece and if any part is still raw cook, until done.
- Once the chicken is almost cooked, return the peppers and onions to the skillet. Decrease the heat and continue to cook while you warm the tortillas.
- In a separate pan, warm the tortillas for 15-20 seconds on each side then eat as quickly as possible, filling the fajitas with the chicken-onion-pepper mixture and optional toppings such as sliced avocado, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, cheese, or refried beans.