tamale recipe

Tamale Trip

In Mexico by José C. MarmolejoLeave a Comment

Story by José C. Marmolejo
Tamales are the perfect food for a trip. On the road or on a path, with access to a microwave or just an open fire, tamales are gems. Generally they have been steamed for at least an hour, so, they are practically sterile, they will not need refrigeration, they will not rot easily. The moisture that surrounds freshly made tamales may cause a fungus colony on the surface after a few days, but if you are allergic to penicillin, it can be easily scraped or if you prefer no green culture at all, they can be reheated on a griddle to force dry them and will last longer on your trip. Tamales are packed in a corn or banana or some other vegetable leaf, which makes the wrapping biodegradable. They can be reheated without a pan or griddle, over a grill or directly over coals, the vegetable wrapping will work as a cooking surface. The wrapping will serve as a plate. Food portioning is not a problem, they come in small, medium and large sizes. While a child can eat one or two, an adult could have half a dozen. I’m talking northern Mexico tamales, because in the south they are much bigger, adjust accordingly. They contain no gluten. They are nutritious, over nutritious if you abuse—like anything else. A meat filling will supply the protein, the masa is a good source of carbohydrates and fat—just the energy you need for a good hike. I submit they are better than an energy bar, in fact, some people call them “Mexican energy bars.” What an invention!

tamale steamer

Inside a commercial-sized steamer.

But wait, there are exceptions to the rule. Family size and extended family size tamales exist, and they are not steamed; they are baked in a pit (but we will discuss Zacahuil and Mucbipollo in another post. They deserve special attention!)
While the invention of this wonder food is disputed by many countries in the American continent, one must believe that this happened near the place where corn was domesticated. Until they find grains of corn in a civilization setting previous to that of Tehuacán, Puebla, we are going to credit this region as the place of origin of tamales. And since Mexico is the country that has the largest variety of them all—it is reported that there are more than 500 types—it is believed that they have had more time here to evolve than anywhere else.
Poblano rajas tamal

Poblano rajas tamal

Tamalli is a Náhuatl word that means “wrapped” and originated the words tamal and tamales—singular and plural respectively in Spanish. The word “tamale” does not exist in the Spanish language. Tamal thus is the name given to a dish of indigenous origin in Mexico prepared with corn dough—stuffing optional—wrapped in a vegetable leaf—dry or green corn, banana, maguey—and these days (though not recommended) could be in aluminum foil or even plastic! It can have meat and/or vegetables in the stuffing, and it could be salty, sweet, or spicy. So, there is a tamal for everyone!
Corn and banana leaves tamal

Corn and banana leaves tamal.

Tradition dictates that tamales are food worthy of a festival or a religious celebration. And this is not far from the truth. It involves the work of many since there were or are crowds to feed! This is why most people have the idea that making tamales is a big project. The truth of the matter is that it depends on the amount of tamales you want to prepare. Since such a delicacy is the eating habit of multitudinous celebrations, traditionally the quantity of tamales must be large, but you can take up a small weekend project in your household. You can make for example a small batch, a couple of pounds of masa that is. If you start prepping on Friday, Saturday afternoon you can put them together and steam them for an hour, you will be having tamales for Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch, and if you are of a small appetite with some luck, you still may have some left over for Monday. Not a bad plan.
typical tamales street vendor

A typical tamales street vendor.

Today, a tamal experience in Mexico City is as close as a phone call. No need for a special occasion or a trip or a weekend project. Services like Uber Eats and small businesses following the pizza model, make this possible. However, the man in a bicycle hawking “tamales oaxaqueños calientitos” still comes by my house, morning and evening, every day. Needless to say that that is my choice. Beautiful!
Dessert tamal

Dessert tamal.

I hope I have motivated you to give tamales a try—recipes below—whether you are going on a trip—where tamales come handy, very handy—or just want to impress your peers at the office any Monday at lunch time. Buen provecho!!!
Recipes for Tamales
Tamales Norteños
These tamales should be small, thin, but loaded with stuffing nonetheless. They will not need any salsa since the stuffing will provide the necessary moisture and flavor.
40 big corn leaves from husks soaked overnight
1 lb. cooked pork shoulder shredded (save the stock)
4 guajillo chiles lightly fried stems removed. Keep seeds and veins
2 ancho chiles lightly fried stems removed. Keep seeds and veins
12 oz. tomatillo boiled and ground
1 onion lightly fried
1 garlic clove lightly fried
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Salt to taste
2 lbs. of coarse corn dough
10 oz. lard
7 oz. shortening
½ teaspoon baking powder
Pork stock
Put the corn husks in water to soak overnight. The following day separate the husks into leaves carefully without ripping and save the big ones. Reserve in water. In a blender grind the chiles, tomatillo, onion and garlic into a sauce. If needed, add some pork stock. Melt 3 oz. of lard in a saucepan and pour the sauce. Add the cumin and salt and cook slow for 20 minutes. Add the shredded pork and cook for 10 more minutes. Add pork stock to avoid reduction. Let it rest overnight. These two steps can be done the same day. Second day: mix very well the lard and shortening in two cups of hot water. Dispose the water that did not mix with the fats and add to the dough little by little as you mix constantly. Add the baking powder and salt. The secret of spongy tamales starts with mixing the lard and shortening perfectly and later mixing the fats thoroughly with the dough. Every cubic inch of dough should have the same amount of fat. Add pork stock to the dough to make it manageable. To test the dough, make little balls of it randomly picked and put them in a glass of water, they should float, if they sink keep mixing. Once the dough is ready, spread around 2 oz. on a corn leaf—that should be pliable by now—and add the stuffing in the middle. Fold the leaf into itself covering the stuffing with the dough and lock everything inside by folding it again. Another method is using a tortilla press, make the dough into a tortilla, place the filling in the center and fold like a turnover, then wrap and fold with the corn leaves. Place the tamales vertically inside a steamer, so the steam can circulate around easily and evenly. Add water, cover and cook for at least an hour. Check from time to time for water and add hot water as necessary. After an hour you can pull a tamal out and check if they are done.
Yield 30 to 40 tamales
Heat level: hot

Spinach Tamales
These vegetarian tamales do not use lard—the soul of tamales—only shortening and are wrapped in banana leaves. No stuffing needed here since the spinach is mixed with the dough.
For the salsa:
2 lbs. tomatillo
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
4 fresh jalapeños stems removed, seeded and deveined
Salt to taste
For the tamales:
2 lbs. of coarse corn dough
10 oz. shortening
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup vegetable stock
3 cups of spinach cut julienne
Salt to taste
4 banana leaves cut in squares of 12”x12”
Instructions for the salsa
In a blender or food processor mix all salsa ingredients and pureé.
Instructions for tamales
Melt the shortening and mix it with the dough. Add veggie stock and salsa to make the dough manageable. Add the spinach and the salt and keep mixing. Divide the dough in 4 to 6 oz. portions and reserve. Toast lightly the banana leaves squares in a griddle to make them pliable without breaking them. Place the dough portions on the toasted squares and fold like an envelope. Fit the tamales vertically in a steamer and cook for at least an hour.
Yield 15 to 20 tamales
Heat level: hot

Dessert Tamales
Sweet in flavor and pink in color—optional—these tamales are a treat for breakfast or after a light dinner.
1 cup lard
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 lbs. of coarse corn dough
1 ½ cups warm water
1 cup sugar
¼ cup raisins and/or strawberries or blueberries
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of red vegetable food colorant—optional.
20 to 24 corn leaves
In a blender mix the lard with the baking powder and beat for at least three minutes. Mix the dough with the water vigorously to an until an homogeneous mixture is obtained. Add the sugar, raisins and/or berries and the coloring if chosen and mix. Place between 4 and 5 oz of dough on a corn leave and spread. Fold and close like an envelope. Place the tamales vertically in a steamer arranging them so the tamales do not block the steam up. Steam the tamales for an hour. After that pull one out and check if they are ready.
Yield 20 to 24 sweet tamales

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