#176 tamales

Hot tamale!  This is a long one…

For those of you who didn’t grow up in our Latin American countries, it’s hard to ever think of the traditional aspect of this wonderfully-wrapped goodie.  Made of masa or dough (starchy, and usually corn-based), the product is wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks and then steamed to absolute holiday perfection.

Tamales originated in Mesoamerica – a region and cultural area in the Americas extending from central Mexico through the south to northern Costa Rica – as early as 8,000 BC.  Long live corn!  The Aztec & Mayan civilizations, as well as the Olmeca & Tolteca before them, used tamales as an easily-portable food, for hunting trips and for travelling large distances, as well as supporting their armies.  Initially, women were taken along in battle as army cooks to make the masa for the tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc.  Tamales were also considered sacred and played an important role in their rituals and festivals.  They became representatives of Mesoamerican culinary tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization, according to Fray Juan de Zumárraga.

It is only natural that tamale-making has become a sort of ritual, since it’s been part of our life since pre-Hispanic times, when special fillings and forms were designated for each specific festival or life event.  Preparation is complex, time-consuming, and an excellent example of communal cooking, where the task usually falls to the women.  They are a favorite comfort food all over, eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!  That’s why making of tamales is usually done in batches of tens or sometimes hundreds, they are quite the popular treat!

Although tamales are mostly well-known as a Mexican treat, they are also very popular & autoctonous to the countries of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and even make their way down to the South American continent, where they go by the name of hallaca.  The masa is also usually made from maíz (dent corn in the U.S.A., not sweet corn, which is called elote).  There are a number of different sorts of tamales, including the tamalito de elote (made with yellow corn, sometimes with a sweet and dry taste).  Our personal favorite is the nacatamal, which includes a mixture of corn masa & lard, and includes seasonings such as salt & achiote (annatto) – which gives it its unique red hints.

This holiday season has been a lovely one for us here.  Not only did we get to feel the Christmas spirit in our hearts, we also got to feel it in our tummies!  I hosted the first ever Honduran tamaleada with some fellow countrymen here in Leipzig, and it was wonderful!  Here’s our successful recipe to share with all, along with all our love full of Christmas cheer!  The recipe makes around 30-40 medium-sized tamales, enough to last through the holidays!

For the Seasoned Meat

  • 1 pound (450g) of pork meat, cubed
  • 1 pound (450g) of chicken breasts, cubed
  • 1 pound of pork ribs
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 onion
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cumin
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 1 cup of cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup of tomato paste
  • 4 cups of water

To begin, sautée the onion, garlic, tomatoes, green bell pepper in a bit of oil until golden & fragrant.  Add the rest of the condiments and stir well.  Add the meats and the water and cover.  I used my pressure-cooker for quicker results!  My meat was tender and the juices were quite savory after about 20 minutes!  Set aside and let cool.

For the Masa Dough

  • 1 pound (450g) of masa flour
  • 7-1/2 cups of water, or according to package
  • 1 cup of lard
  • 1 onion
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Sal & pepper, to taste

Begin by pureeing the garlic cloves, cilantro, green bell pepper, and onion, and adding 1 cup of the water.  Melt the lard, either over the stove or in the microwave (just make sure it doesn’t get too hot, you’ll burn your hands!)  In a large pot, add the masa flour and begin by incorporating the puree mix with your hands.  Slowly add water and work the masa until well dissolved.  It should be rather liquidy.  Turn the heat on to medium and wash your hands.  Add the melted lard, and salt & pepper to taste, and stir with a wooden spoon until the mix becomes even.  Don’t stop stirring, as the masa might solidify before time.  If it seems that it goes somewhat dry or breaks apart, don’t add more water, add more lard!  And keep stirring until a soft, even consistency is reached.  When you reach the point of perfection – I can’t really indicate how you know (but you should be able to handle it for wrapping) – remove from the stove and let it cool.

For the Recado

  • 1 pound (450g) of masa flour
  • 7-1/2 cups of water, or according to package
  • 1 cup of the seasoned meat juices
  • 2 teaspoons of achiote (annatto)
  • Salt & pepper, to taste

Prepare the second round of masa by following the same steps as above for the first.  In a large pot, add the masa flour and incorporate the water, seasoned meat juices, the achiote, and salt & pepper to taste.  Turn the heat on to medium and cook exactly as done above!

Once the meat & the masas are ready, it’s time to set up camp!  Each household seems to have a granny who knows best, so the exact way to fill a tamale is going to remain a bundle of suggestions you can only figure out for yourself by trying!  My personal recommendation:

For the Filling

  • 1 cube of pork meat
  • 1 cube of chicken meat
  • 1 loaded teaspoon of cooked rice
  • 1 loaded teaspoon of diced potatoes
  • 1 loaded teaspoon of green peas
  • 1 loaded teaspoon of garbanzos
  • 1 large prune
  • 1 olive

Set up a rectangle of about 30cm x 20 cm of banana leaves flat on the counter.  Place a large wooden spoonful of the first masa dough on the leaves.  Add a smaller spoonful of the second masa dough, the recado, and add each of the filling ingredients, or yours to taste!  Wrap.  Easier said than done, but I guarantee I couldn’t have done it without YouTube, for sure.

Once wrapped and tied in cute little packages, set inside a large pot that has been draped in banana leaves itself and filled to cover the tamales – you’ll probably have more than one pot, and if you live anywhere in the world where banana leaves DO NOT fall from trees in abundance, you can use aluminium foil as back-up!  Once the babies are in the pot and covered in water, cook on medium heat for about 2 hours.

When ready, serve with the banana leaves and unwrap on the plate.  Be sure to have lemon wedges & hot sauce on the table, some even include a slice of toast!  In any case, be sure to enjoy the delicious treat that taste so much like home in the holidays!

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