Last Thursday was Mexican Independence Day. The holiday marks the day in 1810 when Miguel Hidalgo, a priest in the town of Dolores, rang the church bells and called for rebellion against the Spanish. It also began a war that would last 11 years that would end Spanish monarchy.
Generations ago my maternal ancestors came from Mexico to California. I’ve been working on learning more about Mexico, it’s history, culture and of course the food. Celebration food always brings tamales to mind.
One of my favorite foods to indulge in are tamales. A tamale is a wrapped steamed bundle of corn dough with either a savory or sweet filling. The tamale was recorded as early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. Initially, women were taken along in battle as cooks. They prepared the masa for the tortillas, the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, the demand of preparing the nixtamal (corn) itself became so involved a process, that an alternative was needed for food on the go. Tamales were the next food evolution for revolutions. They could be made ahead and packed, to be warmed as needed by steaming, grilling on the comal (grill), over the fire, or placed directly on top of the coals to warm.
Tamales are simple enough to prepare but they are very labor intensive. Because of the time commitment in modern day Mexico they have become special occasion or holiday food. It’s also a way of extended family members, particularly the women, to come together a few days before the event and prepare and assemble the tamales and complex moles (sauces). The masa (dough) is prepared fresh and assembly, wrapping and tying of the bundles are done before steaming in large pots on the stove. It’s an epic effort needless to say so dozens are prepared what remains can be frozen for use at a later time.
Versions of tamales exist throughout Latin America with the recipe varying from region to region. Some filled with small, sweet beans and pineapple as they are in Sinaloa to shredded meat and red chili in Monterrey, and one of my favorites, the chicken and black mole found in Oaxaca. While the filings differentiate the types so do the wrapping–banana leaves mainly in coastal and tropical Mexico, corn husks in the north and central parts of Mexico. I’ve experimented with swiss chard with pretty good results.
Both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless write about huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles found in NW Mexico they are made with very coarsely ground masa with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves. Holy Tamale!
Here’s a list of the different regional names for tamales (tamal is the Mexican “singular” use):
Cuba, Mexico, South and Central America – Tamal
Michoacan, Mexico – Corunda
Veracruz, Mexico – Zacahull
Nicaragua – Nacatamal
Guatemala – Paches and Chuchitos
Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador – Humita
Puerto Rico – Pasteles
Columbia – Bollo
Venezuela – Hallaca
I often don’t make tamales at home. In San Francisco the Mission is filled with good spots to pick up all kinds of fresh tamales. And given that this is California there’s a few healthier interpretations such as Donna’s Tamales. These delights are vegetarian, organic, and most of them are low in fat. I’m currently in a state of obsession with what is called an Enchamale. This enchilada-tamale hybrid has a generous helping of Straus organic Monterey jack cheese, sliced black olives and yellow onions and it’s covered with Donna’s enchilada sauce. Okay, this is probably not low fat who am I kidding. It’s too good to be.
A great book that got me introduced to the process–ingredients, wrapping techniques and variations on themes– is Tamales 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Traditional Tamales. Straightforward and friendly it builds confidence as you move along in the effort. There are many illustrations. The author, Alice Guadalupe Tapp owns Tamara’s Tamales in Marina Del Rey. One thing that ruffles my feathers a bit is that she suggests using margarine as the fat. Lard is the more traditional taste and use in the preparation of tamales. Some say that the lard is absorbed during the steaming process into the husk or banana. Experiment after all that’s what cooking is all about.
If you don’t have a Mexican neighborhood where you can pick up fresh masa or other supplies a good online resource is MexGrocer. They sell ingredients such as corn husks, instant masa and the essential cooking vessel for this effort the tamaleros or steamer pot.
The key is to be organized, allow yourself enough time, invite some friends to help out and enjoy!
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