With the preparation being so labor and time intensive, tamales became holiday fare, made for special occasions. This tradition remained for thousands of years, with the women of the family working together to make the sauces and meats, preparing the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day, the preparation often 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 and loved by all.
~from “The History of Tamales,” Tamara’s Tamales, Los Angeles, CA
Two Sundays ago the girls and I met my sister Bobbi and her daughter at Mom and Dad’s for the making of the tamales. Mom didn’t start making tamales until about 10 or 15 years ago. She began the tradition when my sister Janet began hosting the Christmas Eve family gathering at her home. Mom decided that what she wanted to contribute to the feast was several dozen tamales. Thus, a family tradition was born.
Truth of the matter is, Mom didn’t learn to make tamales from her own mother. My grandma got her tamales from an Indian woman named Benina. Every year Grandpa gave Benina the head from a butchered pig, and Benina in turn gave Grandma and Grandpa some of the tamales she made with the meat.
Mom tried to teach herself how to make tamales. Back when we lived on Neat Lane in Albuquerque’s south valley, Mom and a neighbor, Ruth, who also happened to be my godmother, tried one day to make tamales. “They ended up weighing about a pound each,” Mom recalled. She can’t remember how she finally figured out to make tamales, but she thinks it might have been her cousin Maggie who finally taught her.
Tamales are found all over Latin America but are said to be from Mexico, although back in the days when tamales first appeared, there was no such thing as “Mexico.” Which probably means that tamales were made by various indigenous groups—Aztecs, Mayans, the Incas. Tamales are made of one of the most basic staples in indigenous diets—corn. Several sources on the history of tamales described them this way:
In Pre-Columbian history, being on the move and at war, there was a need for a portable yet sustaining food; hence, the tamale was born. Tamales can be made ahead of time and steamed, grilled, put directly on top of coals to warm, or even eaten cold. There is no record of which pre-Colombian culture invented the tamale, but the evidence suggests that one culture did and the others followed the example.
Tamales caught on fast and there were a variety of dishes, many unknown to modern tastebuds. There were tamales with red, green, yellow, and black chile; tamales with chocolate; fish tamales; frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. There were white and red fruit tamales, yellow tamales, dried meat tamales, roasted meat, stewed meat, bean and rice tamales. There was sweet sugar, pineapple, raisin, cinnamon, berry, banana and pumpkin tamales. There were hard and soft cheese tamales, roasted quill tamales, ant, potato, goat, wild boar, lamb and tomato tamales.
The wrapping for these tamales varied almost as much as the ingredients. Cornhusks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark and other non-toxic leaves were used. The most typical wrappings were cornhusk and banana or avocado leaves.
Today, the most common tamales are red and green chile with chicken, pork, or beef. There are also cheese and vegetable tamales, which probably came about as more and more people have opted to not eat meat.
Making tamales requires plenty of preparation and a lot of determination. Mom makes hers over a period of three days, the last being Assembly. She doesn’t follow recipes, but I’ve done my best to document her methods.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Five pounds of pork loin.
- About sixty or so chile pods, which you can usually buy in a Mexican fruit market, if your town has one. We often get our chile at a place called “Fruit Basket,” which is a local chain with little stores not much bigger than fruit stands.
- A package or two of dried cornhusks, which are called hojas in Spanish. Mom gets these at Costco, or at our local tortilla factory. You can probably also get them at a Mexican fruit market.
- A package of Masa Harina, which is pre-mixed corn mixture, or masa. This you can pick up at a regular grocery store, assuming your city has a pretty big Latino population. You might need to have on hand some baking powder to add to the mixture.
- For seasoning, per your own tastes, have on hand fresh garlic, a few yellow onions, fresh or dried oregano and cilantro, salt.
- A few big bowls, a kettle or deep pot, roasting pan, blender for making the chile, a food processor for mixing the masa, and a steamer that holds a lot of tamales.
Day One – The Meat & The Broth
Place about five pounds of pork loin in a large pot or kettle. Add enough water to completely cover the meat. Throw in an onion or two, about four garlic cloves, fresh or dried cilantro and oregano, and boil for about five hours. As the broth boils down, add more water to make sure the meat stays covered.
If the kettle is too big to store in the refrigerator and if you live in a climate that easily dips below freezing most nights in December, you can store the kettle outside in the garage. (That’s what Mom does.) If you don’t live in a cold climate, then make room in the fridge and place the pot in there overnight.
Day Two – Turning The Meat Into Chile Meat
The next day you’ll skim the fat off the broth; this is easy, since overnight as the broth cooled, the fat rose to the top and solidified. Take the pork out of the kettle, shred it into small pieces—it should fall apart after having boiled for so long the day before—and put them into a large bowl. Put the broth back in the garage or the refrigerator; you’ll need it tomorrow for the masa.
Here’s where the recipe gets especially intuitive. Mom makes about two blenderfuls of red chile, but we’re not sure how many pods one blender of chile requires. We’ve estimated you’ll need about 30 chile pods per blender (60 pods total).
Wash the pods in water and dry them a bit. You’ll need to clean each pod by slicing it down the seam, opening it up, and scraping out the seeds. Also discard the stem, which will require cutting it out.
The chile pods are dry and can break apart. That’s fine. Put all the “flesh” parts in the blender. Throw in a couple of cloves of garlic, a small onion (cut in fourths), a couple sprigs each of cilantro and oregano. Add in a bit of water, enough to get the blender going but not so much as to make the chile watery. You want thick chile for tamales. Blend until smooth.
Add the first batch of chile to the meat, and make a second batch. When that’s done, add it to the meat, too. You’re finished for the day.
Day Three – Assembly
Clean the hojas , which will be stiff and unusable. Put them into a roasting pan (you’ll need something long enough to lay the hojas flat), cover with water, and boil. Let the hojas boil for about two hours, until they are soft and workable.
Once the hojas are ready, the next step is to prepare the masa. Follow the directions on the package of Masa Harina, which per Mom’s recollection requires you to add salt, baking powder, and broth (or water). Put the dry masa into a bowl and moisten it with broth. Put the moistened mixture into the food processor and add more broth, a little at a time, mixing with a spatula until the mixture is moist. At some point Mom knows there’s enough broth and turns on the food processor for about 30 or 60 seconds.
Mom says you want the consistency of the masa to be similar to cake mix, but my take is that you want it to be stiffer, like frosting. (The good news is that the package will give you the right measurements, so hopefully it won’t be quite so ambiguous when you do this, although Mom doesn’t follow the package directions and instead relies on her senses to tell her when she’s added enough broth.)
Now assemble the tamales by laying out an open hoja, dropping about two or so tablespoons of masa into the center and smoothing it out like frosting, dropping about one generous tablespoon of chile meat into the center of the masa, rolling the cornhusk lengthwise until it’s closed, and then tying the ends. One person will need to tie the ends (using little strips of cornhusk, which that person can tear off to form a little pile of ties) while another person holds the tamale.
The Sunday of our tamale making adventure, we made about six dozen—not a lot compared to what some families make. We steamed enough to eat right then and there, but the rest got frozen. Tamales must be steamed for at least an hour, and depending on the thickness of the masa, maybe longer. It’s always good, too, to let a steamed tamale sit for about 15 minutes before you open up the cornhusk; that way, the masa can set.
Epilogue – To Tie Or Not To Tie
You may notice when you buy tamales at a market or order them in a restaurant that some come without ties. Many, probably most, people make their tamales by flattening the filling (much more than Mom does—hers are kind of fat and round) and folding up one of the ends of the cornhusk instead of tying both ends. This tends to be a personal preference. Some say that folding is easier and doesn’t require an extra set of hands. Mom insists that folding takes a special knack that she never learned, and so she opts to tie.
Whether folded or tied, tamales are one of the best-tasting foods there is. Maybe it’s that they’re made with such care and intention by so many loving hands. Maybe it’s the stories that get told during the hours of making, the laughter that is spilled.
We eat our tamales on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, smothered in red chile, or my favorite—on top of a bowl of posole (I’ll save that recipe for another day) and then the whole thing smothered with red chile. That’s all the nourishment I need.
Happy holidays to you and yours, whatever it is that sustains you this time of year. (And to my sister in Denver and her husband, my nieces and nephews-in-law, and my grand-niece and nephews—we love you and miss you!)
Corn, Maize, Masa, Nixatamal, Pozole by gourmetsleuth.com
A Thumbnail History of Mexican Food by Mexican Mercados
Making Tamales, by fellow blogger Corina of Wasted Days and Wasted Nights