On Tamales

The first time I ever ate a real tamale was a revelatory experience. Such a wonderful amalgam of corn, meat, and vegetables!

This culinary exposure took place quite a few years ago in a Mexican village along the Gulf Coast. There are many street-food vendors in just about any Mexican town; I was hungry and took notice of a ten-year-old boy standing on the sidewalk next to a galvanized trash can.  A tiny wood fire beneath the can (which sat on a few bricks) seemed to be making something boil within. I was intrigued.

The boy looked at me hopefully and said “Tamales, señor?”

“Let me take a look!” I replied.

The boy removed the trashcan’s lid and showed me ranks of vertically-oriented tamales arranged in a rack above a simmering pot of water.   A marvelously savory odor was conveyed by the steam rolling out of the can.

I had eaten bad canned tamales before, paper-wrapped pale orange concoctions which bear as as much resemblance to a real tamale as Spaghetti-Os do to home-made spaghetti. The real thing, I found, belonged to another category altogether. Unwrapping the steamed-soft corn-husk wrapper I found a neat oval of what looked like fine-textured cornbread. The filling was a simple mixture of cubed pork and green salsa.

That day I vowed to learn how to cook tamales.

Last night Bev and I made a batch of tamales using commercial masa harina, a corn flour made from nixtamalized white corn. Nixtamalization is the ancient process of treating corn kernels with a base solution, originally ash-water. What this does is make the corn more nutritious by freeing up previously unavailable amino acids and vitamins. This was a New World culinary invention which unfortunately didn’t accompany corn when the grain entered the continents of the Old World.

The corn husks used to wrap tamales are pleasant to work with. Lesser-quality husks are ripped into slender strips which are just right for tying off the ends of the tamales. First the corn husks are steamed in a pan in order to soften them:


Bev had previously prepared a filling mixture which had cooled by the time we were ready to make the tamales. It’s a mixture of chopped vegetables:


While Bev was chopping vegetables I had mixed up a batch of dough in the food processor; it’s just masa harina, stock, and a mixture of butter and shortening. The texture is like that of cookie dough:


A couple of spoonfuls of dough is spread out in the middle of corn husk and filling is applied:


The husk is rolled up and the ends are twisted shut and held by strips of torn husk tied securely. The husk ties are surprisingly strong and quite pleasing to work with:


Water has been brought to a slow boil in a large stock-pot which has a folding vegetable steamer in the bottom to keep the tamales out of the water:


It is very satisfying to see the assembled tamales gathered in the steamer awaiting their collective fate!

The tamales don’t take all that long to steam, perhaps forty-five minutes. They are done when the husk will peel cleanly from the cooked masa. Here’s a finished tamale with sour cream and green tomatillo salsa:


Here’s a closer look at the corn masa after it has been steamed. The surface takes an impression from the grooved surface of the enfolding corn husk which pleases me mightily. The texture doesn’t contribute to the taste but it does gratify the eye:


It’s true that tamales are quite a bit of work, one reason we don’t make them all that often. It’s almost as easy to make a large batch as it to make a small one, and tamales reheat beautifully in a microwave. The corn husk wrappers protect the tender and moist corn masa and therefore tamales keep well. I’ve read that they are good after being frozen and thawed, but ordinarily they get eaten up rather quickly!




Filed under Food

8 responses to “On Tamales

  1. Isn’t the food soooo darned good at this establishment! No wonder we eat here all the time! (-:

  2. Good tamales are so hard to find in NY. I love that you’re making these. Impressive! I definitely will have to try it myself. I have a whole post dedicated to my quest for good tamales!
    I just love them.

  3. that post made me hungry but no ingredients for tamales here; so I settled for cornbread– not the pure variety either.

  4. ljfitz62

    Holy moly that tamale looks good! Thanks for the pictoral lesson and background story. This sure made my measly lunch pale in comparison.

  5. Laura Layton

    Yours look yummy, my mouth is watering. I tried some authentic tamales from a Mexican market, but were not as tasty as yours look! Now I want to try some again

  6. Darrell

    Regarding the lime solution . . . I now recall my Mother telling me that hominy had to be soaked in ash water to make it good. Same with the corn there I guess?

  7. You might have misunderstood your mother, Darrell. Hominy is made by soaking and cooking kernels of dry corn in an alkaline solution, originally wood ashes in water. Masa dough is made by wet-grinding hominy, while the dry masa harina flour available in grocery stores is made by grinding dry hominy — but these processes are all based on nixtamalization!

  8. Darrell

    You’re probably right on the nixamilization point. I does seem that corn, especially in Mexico, was viewed with a bit of caution; a professorial friend who spent a lot of time in rural Mexico said that people there are careful to mix corn with peppers, squash, etc., and avoid consuming only corn on a continued basis.

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