Hot Tamales: Now is the Time!
When people think Mexico, they think tamales. The tamal (its proper singular name) is perhaps the most emblematic food in a culture full of emblematic foods. All over the country, morning and night, vendors set up their stands to sell these steaming delicacies to passersby hungry for a hearty breakfast, a quick supper, or in-between snack. A tamal, with the sweetened hot corn drink atole, is a traditional breakfast for many Mexicans. Who hasn’t heard that odd pre-recorded drone (“tamales Oaxaqueñooooos…”) of carts rumbling through the city streets at night?. From market stalls to fancy restaurants, tamales are found all over Mexico, and have been for centuries. As we approach February 2nd, the Día de Candelaria, tamales take center stage. Now is when we celebrate them.
The name comes from "tamalli", náhuatl for “carefully wrapped thing". Found all over Latin America, tamales vary from region to region, often with different names. The basic tamal is ground corn wrapped in a husk (usually corn but also banana leaf which makes a smoother, denser texture) and then steamed. The masa (corn dough) is mixed with lard, and typically contains a small amount of filling: chicken or pork with red sauce, green sauce, or mole, and strips of chile poblano with cheese are the most common. The filling is really only a flavoring—the main event is the corn itself. Tamales are usually eaten in the morning and at night. In residential neighborhoods, market areas, outside metro stations, and around town plazas, tamal vendors tend shiny steel containers with steam escaping from the edges. Because tamales cook for a long time and are sold hot, they are a dependably hygienic street food.
Día de Candelaria, February 2nd, marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and, like Groundhog Day in the US, has long been thought to be an indictor of the weather to come. In Mexico it fuses pre-Hispanic with Catholic beliefs and signifies the date to begin planting. Since pre-colonial times, tamales have been associated with this time of year. They were placed as offerings to Tlaloc, the rain god, in Aztec culture. The Spanish colonists adapted the practice when people converted to Christianity, to fit their Candelmas Day. Today, accros Mexico, people celebrate this holiday with a “tamalada” or tamal party.
No one in Mexico knows more about tamales than Beatriz Woolrich Ramírez. She should--she’s been making them her whole life. Owner of Tamales Especiales in Coyoacán, she is also a teacher, culinary historian, and “tamalera” par excellence. Tamales Especiales, (Centenario 180, between Berlin and Viena, open Monday 10-5. Tuesday- Saturday 8AM-10PM, Sunday 6-10PM, tel. 5554-5996) is a shop and restaurant offering a wide variety of tamales, sold both retail and wholesale. Beatriz recounts that her mother, Doña Amelia, a strong willed Tehuana from Oaxaca, sold desserts to friends from her own kitchen. With the success of this informal catering operation, but against the will of her husband, she decided to open her own business. She rented an apartment next door to the family home and Tamales Especiales was born. That was 51 years ago.
note: Tamales Especiales is no longer open to the public, as of 2012; but will do special catering orders.
Beatriz runs the family operation today. “Corn is the essence of Mexico,” she explained. “Tamales are made by hand in the same shape as an ear of corn, so they best reflects that essence. Interestingly, my cooking students often make tamales that look like themselves – short fat people make short fat tamales,” she chuckles. “The tamal is the presence of indigenous Mexico. It is God and life itself.” Her tamales are among the best I’ve tasted. Under the watchful eye of master cook Lupe, up to 14 different versions are made daily. The rajas con queso, most common in central Mexico, is airy-light and only mildly spicy. The denser banana-wrapped Oaxacan version is full of sweet chocolaty mole (my favorite). There is a “tamal vegetariano,” which contains no animal fat, and even a “pre-hispanico,” filled with “vegetables from the farm” and containing no fat at all.
How to make them
Tamales are labor intensive, but not really that difficult to make. The trick is mixing the fat into the dough properly so the texture is just right. Timing the steaming is essential. They should be neither soft and underdone nor overcooked which makes them mushy and watery. Here is a simple recipe adapted for residents of Mexico from Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican:
Tamales With Chicken and Green Sauce
yield: about 16 medium tamalesa small bunch of dried corn husks, available at any market
For the dough:
125 g (1/2 cup) white manteca (lard)
½ k masa for tamales (this can be bought at many tortillerias)
About 2/3 cup broth, (preferably light flavored poultry broth), at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking powder
Salt, about ½ teaspoon, (depending on the saltiness of the broth)
For the filling:
1 1/3 cups shredded chicken
½ cup salsa verde (simple green sauce made with tomate verde)
1. The cornhusks:
Simmer in water for 10 minutes, then separate out the largest ones; they should ideally be about 6” wide and 6-7” long.
2. The dough:
If the lard is very soft, refrigerate it to firm a little. Then, with an electric mixer, beat it until very light, about 1 minute. Add half the masa and beat until well blended. As you continue beating, alternate additions of the remaining masa with douses of broth, adding enough liquid to give the mixture the consistency of a medium thick cake batter. Sprinkle in the baking powder and enough salt to generously season the mixture, then beat for about a minute more until about ½ teaspoon will float when placed in a cup of cold water.
3. The filling:
Mix the shredded chicken with the salsa verde and set aside.
4. Forming and steaming the tamales:
Set up a small steamer and line it with corn husks. Then use the dough to form 16 cornhusk wrapped tamales (each will take about 3 tablespoons of dough), filling each one with 1 ½ tablespoons of the filling. To form the tamal, lay out a prepared husk with the tapered end toward you. Spread the dough into a 4” square, leaving at least a 1 1/2” border on the side toward you and a ¾” border on the other sides (with large husks, the borders will be much bigger). Spoon the filling down the center of the dough. Pick up the two long sides of the cornhusk and bring them together (this will cause the dough to surround the filling). If the uncovered borders of the two long sides you’re holding are narrow, then tuck one side under the other – if wide then roll both sides in the same direction around the tamal. If the husk is small, wrap the tamal in a second husk. Fold up the empty 1 ½” section of the husk, then secure it in place by tying with a ¼” wide strip of husk. Leave the other end open. Place upright and loosely (they need room to expand) in the steamer and cover with any remaining husks. Finally, set the lid in place and steam for 1 to 1 ½ hours until the dough comes free from the husk easily when opened – the timing will vary and it is best to pull one out and check periodically.
If you don’t want to do it yourself, tamales are available on just about any street corner in any city. And better yet, why not visit the incredible Feria Internacional del Tamal, every year at the end of January, at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, Av. Hidalgo 289 near the main plaza of Coyoacán. As they have for the past 17 years, they will be offering a sampling of tamales from all over Latinamerica. Open 10-6.
This article was previously printed in The News Mexico City
Tere Palm: I enjoyed reading all about tamales on this special Mexican celebration. The electric mixer should make it much easier than how I was taught to mix the dough! I will definitely go to the Museum in Coyoacán to sample the tamales today! Un abrazo!
Alice in Tenochtitlán: I LOVE tamales and i am always on the hunt for "the greatest tamal in DF"... and i think that i have found something pretty special... normally i would never buy tamales from the supermarket - but I would recommend "tamales leo" that can be found in some Mega stores and also in City Market - these are perfect for the tamal fiend like myself that always wants some around at home to curb the craving to eat a tamal. The tamales are very good and i have been buying them for the last few months after giving them a try after seeing them at citymarket. I freeze them then reheat them for just under 2 minutes in the microwave - the fillings are good and the maiz has a wonderful, rich flavour... definately great tamales to have around in the freezer at home.