During the holiday season, tamales are a must in any Latin household. This is the time when the mamis and the abuelitas go all out and make tamales that turn the neighbors green with envy. As a matter of fact, I still remember my friend Elena’s tamales from almost twelve years ago. By far, the best homemade tamales this side of the border.
Tamales can be found all over Latin America from Cuba to Peru. And believe it or not, there are also tamales indigenous to the U.S. Some are made using cornhusks as a wrapper and others use banana leaves. Some are big, some small. It would take en entire cookbook to cover the variety of tamales available in Latin America. (Note: Easy Tamales Recipe listed below.)
So, in order not to start a tamal revolution right here on Mamiverse, I will speak in general terms and you can see if these tamale secrets match your own idea of a traditional tamal.
TAMALES 101 In her fabulous Mexican cookbook, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy discusses a variety of tamales found in Mexico. From the fabled long sacahuil in the Sierra Huasteca to the tamales de bola in Chiapas, she makes a point that just in this country alone a tamal can be many things. Depending on which tamal you’re talking about, the masa could be rough (roughly crushed with a grainy texture) or, as a Campeche cookbook says, “so delicate it trembles at the touch.” But the one thing tamales have in common is that they are made with masa, or corn dough.
Read Related: Tamales: From Start to Finish
You should start with the best corn masa and pork lard you can find. Sure, you could buy a sack of Maseca and a can of Crisco, but when the tamales are not quite right you’ll know why.
FILL ‘EM UP You can fill tamales with just about anything you want: pork with ancho chile sauce, mole, shrimp, cheese…you name it. But whatever the filling, the same rules apply; be sure to use fresh natural ingredients. I once had tamales in the small pueblo of Olinala at a friend’s house. They were made with only tomato as the filling, but the corn had come from their milpa and the tomatoes from a farmer in town. I was used to the slightly dry tamales with little filling they sell in the street in Mexico City so I guess I didn’t expect much. But, the taste and texture of the tamales was out of this world.
The thing about the dough is that you can mix anything you want into it to give it flavor. In New Mexico they sometimes blend a little chicken or pork broth with garlic and chile powder with the masa. You can also add cinnamon, sugar, and even finely diced nuts.
A PRIMER ON PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER Assembling the tamales is an art. The deal is that there has to be a balance of masa and filling to get the right taste. When I think of the tamales sold in the streets in Mexico City, they were mostly masa with little filling, but then again, they sold for just a few pesos. Too much filling will not balance out with the subtle taste of the masa.
You need to spread the dough evenly over the husk, leaving the edges of the husk free of masa from side-to-side and at the front, and leaving about a quarter of the husk at the bottom free of masa because you will be folding this up. Again, this is something that is an art so how much masa is relative (anywhere from 1/8th of an inch to even half an inch would work.) Then, add the filling at the center of the tamal and fold it like a taco. Finally, fold the rear of the tamal (where there is no masa) and use thin pieces of husk to tie each tamal as if it was a Christmas present.
Next is the steaming. Tamales are steamed…not microwaved or baked. So, you will need a steamer. This is not an electric appliance you can find at your local department store. If your mami or abuelita don’t have one you can borrow, you can try a Mexican grocery if you have one in your area.
Set the tamales on the steamer facing up (standing up) and steam from 1 to 2 hours depending on the recipe you’re following. The tamal is ready when the dough separates easily from the husk.
Read Related: Tamales: A Gift of Love, Culture and Fellowship
INSIDER TAMELE SECRETS
• Place a coin, like a penny, in the water in the steamer, it will make a sound to let you know the water is boiling. If you don’t hear the coin, you’re out of water!
• Place a layer of cornhusks at the bottom of the steamer for even distribution. This is especially important if you’re improvising and not using a steamer.
• Place a cotton cloth over the tamales, then place the lid of the steamer over that, especially if you are not using a steamer.
• Making tamales is labor intensive. You can make the filling the day before.
• Involve the whole family. In Mexico, as in other places, tamales are made for special occasions, so making them can also be a special occasion.
• Make a lot of tamales because they freeze well.
Here’s a quick and easy recipe for chicken and green sauce tamales for busy mamis.
EASY TAMAL RECIPE FOR BUSY MAMIS Yields: Approximately 30-40 tamales
Ingredients One package corn husks 2½ cups of Maseca (corn masa flour) ½ cup of lard 2-3 cups chicken broth 4 chicken leg quarters Green (tomatillo) sauce (two 16oz jars) Salt
The Dough: Mix the maseca, lard, broth, and salt in a bowl using your hands until the dough reaches a soft consistency but is not watery.