I have a friend whose family tradition for New Year's Day is to go to church and then come home and make tamales -- lots and lots of them. Here are some notes on her tamale preparation, from 2001.

We made two different fillings: roasted chiles and cinnamon bananas. For the chiles, we removed the skin and seeds and set them aside in a bowl. The bananas we cut into smallish pieces and mixed them with powdered cinnamon and brown sugar.

For wrappings we used dried corn husks which we purchased at a local store. To make it a little easier for us to wrap them, we soaked the husks in water while we mixed up the masa.

For these tamales we mixed one pound of shortening (I guess it's traditional to use manteca, or lard, but we had the Crisco handy) for five pounds of wet masa. As we happened to have bought a five pound bag of wet masa, the measuring was easy. We dumped the masa and the fat into a huge mixing bowl and started squishing it all together. This took a while.

Once the masa was mixed, we began assembling the tamales. Onto a husk we would spread about 1.5 cm of masa, then we'd put some filling into the middle and fold the husk over, sealing the filling in and wrapping the masa in husk. We stacked the filled husks in a huge kettle with a vegetable steamer at the bottom and an inch or so of water in it.

When the kettle was about three quarters full, we started the heat. After letting the tamales steam for about half an hour, we took those out and kept on assembling and steaming more.

Five pounds of masa makes an awful lot of tamales.
La gringa at the marketa.

It was dusk on the second Saturday in January when the family of first class tamale makers appeared in front of the local grocery store. As I climbed out of my little Mopar the white haired Señorito rolled a bright red cart, tipped his hat politely open the ice chest and askes brightly,
¿Tamales? They are eight dollars a pound, but only for you-- today they are five dollars.”
The aroma was intoxicating as he open the foil and offered me a peek. I laughed and replied,
¿Quién puede resistir tal tentacións mágica?"
By the third weekend of the month tamale season is over.

La vida de la tamale loco.

There can be no tamales without corn. It's a life-sustaining grain that was central to the inhabitants who populated what is now Mexico. Tamales have been around since the Pre Columbian era. Some say as early as five to seven thousands years BC. One of the staple foods of the time was masa or tamal. It was and still is made by taking dried kernels of corn and cooking them in limewater then left to soak overnight. From this they would make a type of flour or masa, which is like ground hominy, and sometimes called nixtamal. In fact mais, the Spanish word for corn means "seed of life." Corn gods were part of their deities and artifacts depicting corn are widespread in early Maya carvings that portray the cycle of life and death. As the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures developed so did the battles among them and along with them the demand for foodstuffs made from masa that traveled well. Women that went along with the traveling soldiers as cooks creatively combined the need for fast food and a more convenient way to carry provisions. This is how the tamale was born. These little packets of enchanted corn could be made ahead and then packed to be warmed as needed. They could be cooked on the comal over the fire, steamed, put right on top of the coals to heat, or even eaten cold. Wrapped in just about any kind of edible leave, nowadays the most commonly used are cornhusks; banana leaves and avocado leaves are still used today. Readily adaptable, many cooks throw in red and green chilies, chicken, pork, beef, cheeses, and more recently a variety of vegetables.

Isn’t science amazing?

doyle explains that soaking the cornhusks in limewater (calcium hydroxide), helps prevent pellagra which is a severe niacin and tryptophan deficiency, a disorder that is more common among people who use corn as their source of protein. Oddly, the people of Mexico and Central and South America do not suffer from this deficiency since they cook their corn in limewater, which releases the protein-bound niacin.

Tamales are called by different names according to the region they’re prepared in and are enjoyed throughout South America . Some have even gone island hopping through the Caribbean across the Atlantic and into West Africa. Some of them are quite unique and flavorful. Here are a few varieties from gourmetsleuth.com:

  • Culiacan, Sinaloa - Everyday varieties include tamales made of small, sweet brown beans, pineapple and corn. Special occasion versions are large and made with both meat and vegetables.
  • Veracruz - Tamales made of fresh corn and pork seasoned with hoja santa. Other styles include banana-leaf wrapped masa with chicken and hoja santa.
    Hoja santa is a large leaf used as an herb in south Mexico cooking.
  • Yucatan - Achiote is a favored seasoning. Many tamales from this region are quite large and cooked either in a pit or baked in the oven. The dough is made of smooth-ground masa and fillings include chicken and pork, or a combination. Another version is called the vaporcitos, a simple thin layer of masa on a banana leaf, steamed. Tamales colads, a thin dough with fillings of chicken, tomato and achiote.
    (Achiote are dark red seeds from the annatto tree, popular in the Yucatan for adding color and flavor to food.)
  • North Western Mexico – (Two columnists) write of the huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles made with very coarsely ground masa with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves. These monstrous tamales are baked in wood heated ovens in specialty restaurants, normally on weekends.

Señorito’s family tradition includes a black olive in the center of each one, kind of like a tootsie pop! Most tamale recipes are labor intensive and over the millennia have taken on many forms within family traditions. Here in the desert southwest the women of the family get together during the weeks over Christmas and New Years to put together the meats, prepare the sauces and the masa. At long last they assemble and wrap them in cornhusks that imparts a deep flavor into the tamales as they steam in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day with the preparations frequently starting one of two days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales. In most cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time. Everyone, young, old, family and friends, is invited to tamale feasts where they are enjoyed, savored by all.

La gringa in mañanaland.

The best tamales are determined by their masa. With the decline of the tamale making traditions and Anglicized quasi-tamales hitting the fast foods scene I have been on a quixotic quest for something to fill in for the rest of the year. The tamale pie recipe described here is chosen for its simplicity as well as its similar flavor and moist texture of Señorito’s sweet green corn tamales, add some black beans and salsa and you have a complete meal.

While you are gathering the ingredients, grease an iron skillet or a 13 x 9 inch oblong pan and set it in the oven while it preheats. Mix together the dry ingredients first.

Now you’re ready to add 2 cups of buttermilk and 2 eggs, beaten together. While you are mixing you’ll probably notice it’s looking kind of lumpy. That’s okay. Mix it until dry ingredients are just moistened and pour it into the heated dish. Listen to it sizzle! You’ll have a lip-smacking golden brown crust when it’s all done.

Bake at 400º for about 40 minutes until a light golden brown. You can test for doneness by sticking a knife in the center. You’ll know it’s done when the knife comes out clean. Top it with another cup of cheddar cheese, pop it back into the oven for about five minutes until it’s melted and just starting to brown.

You can use your favorite cornbread recipe. Simply omit the oil and baking powder. There are some seriously delicious ones here on E2 and I would recommend any of them. Two packages of Jiffy cornbread mix will do when you're pinching groceries.

This is a fairly mild recipe and the beauty of it is that it can reflect any kind of international flavor of tamale by adding ingredients that appeal to you. Some variations might be-- adding shredded beef, chicken, or pork. Chorizo, onions, garlic, cilantro or some chili powder will spice it up. To add some color and change the texture, substitute two cups of tomato sauce and a half a cup of oil for the buttermilk then toss in 4 teaspoons of baking powder to the dry ingredients.

I may dress in scarlet, but don't mistake me for a Hot Tamale.

Simple yet delicious. I am passionate about tamales and can’t wait until January rolls around again to buy them from the professional tamaleros. Unwrapping a warm cornhusk releases a comforting aroma of corn, along with thoughts of Señorito’s home and family. There is only one explanation to take so much time over something so fleeting, and the word for it is love.


Excerpt from Pellagra:


Tamara's Tamales:

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