I went on an adventure last week – a little foodie adventure in Mexico City.
It all started with a conversation with my colleague Laura the week before, who was explaining to me what the difference of a Texan tamale is compared to the tamale we get in Mexico City. Apparently the tamales in Texas are smaller but with more filling and something you only have on special occasions or for Christmas.
Now for those of you who don’t know what a tamale is (I had no idea before I moved to Mexico) it is a Mesoamerican dish that is made of a starchy dough called masa which is usually corn based, and has a filling of one kind or the other. The masa is then wrapped up in some form of leaf wrapper and steamed until it is firm. In Mexico City they use corn husks, but in the more tropical parts of Mexico and Latin America it is common to use banana leaves.
Although skeptical at first, I have now grown to LOVE (slightly on the verge of being obsessed with) tamales since I have moved here and can’t seem to get enough of them. The chicken tamale was the salsa verde is a god send….!
Anyway back to my conversation with Laura – after she explained how she made them and how much work it is for one person, I said well, if you ever intend to make them again, I would love to learn! So she took me up on my offer to be general dogs body in her kitchen in exchange for teaching me her Texan Tamales!
Laura is a proud Texan of Mexican descent, who is married to a Mexican and is currently living and working here – when she told her family that she had a food obsessed gringa in her office that was coming home to them on the weekend to learn how to make tamales – they were slightly concerned! “how is she going to get here?”, “will she find her way?” “How will she get home?” when Laura feebly replied ‘taxi…I guess’, her sister-in-law would not hear of it and proclaimed she would come pick me up near the office, and take me to Laura’s house herself, to make sure I got there safely!
It is gestures such as these that make my heart melt in Mexico – that someone whom I have never met, would take the time out of their own lives, to pick up a perfect stranger to ensure that they made it safely to their destination.
Sure enough at the allotted time and the appointed place I met Laura’s sister-in-law who is a slight women who probably reaches no higher than my shoulders, but with an energy that is palpable. Once we established who we were, she proceeded to guide me to the Metro station and talk to me a mile a minute – now, although I understand a lot of Spanish, and can have basic conversations, I was having trouble keeping up with what she was saying to me, which I think lead her to think I was slightly slow and hard of hearing…as the remainder of the day, she spoke very slowly and very loudly at me!
After we had taken the metro for about 20 minutes, we then hopped onto a small autobus, which is basically a little van that works as a cross between a bus and a taxi system. As I understand it, you just hail one down when you want to get on and you kind of just yell at your driver when you want to jump off. Although I was never worried at any moment, the thought did cross my mind, that if I was abandoned now, I really don’t know how I would find my way home – I had absolutely no idea where I was.
Now to the tamales! When I arrived at Laura’s home, I was welcomed with open but somewhat sticky arms – as Laura was elbow deep blending the masa. She had gotten up at 6am to start the preparation and make the fillings. I am not going to dwell on how to make the fillings, as this is something that varies from country to country, region to region, person to person – basically you can put ANYTHING in as a filling and it will be good. For these tamales, we used a chili shredded chicken, cheese and jalapeno, a re-fried been filling – we even made a sweet version by adding sugar and pineapple!
How to make the masa – to be honest, in some ways, I wish I didn’t know as I have now figured out why tamales are so damn amazing and addictive, I have two words for you – pork lard! (and a lot of it!)
In a large bowl, pour in 2 kg of corn flower (maseca), 2 tsp of baking powder and 2 tsps of salt and mix well. Then add 2 cups of chicken broth and mix well with your hands allowing the corn flower to absorb all the moisture. In the meantime melt 2kg of pork lard (Manteca)..yes, you did read that right, 2KG of pork lard – but make sure you do not burn it, you just want it to be in liquid form.
As you would do with a risotto, pour in a little at a time but mixing constantly. You will know when the masa is ready as the dough will stop sticking to the bowl and your hands, and it will have a smooth oily appearance. Let the dough rest for a while.
Now comes the hard part – putting the masa on to the corn husk. I think if these were Mexican tamales this would have been much easier process, just get a spoon full of masa and plop it in the middle…but as these are Texan Tamales you have very little masa in comparison. With a few quick and simple strokes Laura showed me how it was done. Take a back of a spoon, dollop a little bit of masa in the middle, then spread it evenly throughout the husk so there is just a smooth layer of masa, then move on to the next one….ummm….not quite – mine were a mess! This is definitely a technique you perfect over time and can’t expect to pick it up immediately. But after a few failed attempts and 2 hours later…I think I just about got the hang of it. What did make me feel better, was when some other family members of Laura’s came to help – they were just as bad as it as me!
Once you have covered the corn husks with the masa, dollop a little bit of your desired filling into the middle of the husk, and wrap it as though it was a Christmas present! In total we made roughly 100 tamales with the amount described above.
Now you need to steam them. We used a tamale steamer that is designed precisely for this purpose, but you can use an extra large pot with a steaming basket at the bottom. You can pour normal water into your pot, although Laura poured in chicken stock which I thought was a really nice touch, as all the vapor that will be steaming the tamales will have that lovely essence of chicken.
Place the steaming basket above the stock, and then add your tamales with their openings facing down-wards in a circle, and over lapping until there are no more tamales left. Your should be left with a large pot full of tamales and an empty ‘tunnel’ in the middle which allows the steam to rise and reach all of your little bundles of joy! Spread any left over husks on top of the tamales and then a sheet of foil to make sure as little steam as possible can escape.
Put on top of the stove and steam for about 1 hour. You know your tamales are done, when you unwrap them from their husk and they pull away easily and cleanly. FINALLY YOUR TAMALES ARE READY!
Although pretty straight forward – Laura is right, a lot of work and time goes into making these little bad boys, and you have to be pretty dedicated. This is definitely one of those dishes that are a family or community group effort! What you can do is make a large batch as we did, and instead of steaming all of them if you know you will not be able to finish them, pop the raw tamale in to the freezer and steam them another time.
In Mexico you tend to eat your tamales on their own, or in a bun like a sandwich (a serious carbohydrate bomb) but apparently in Laura’s family she would serve them with white rice and salsa which are her children’s favourite.
So what is my verdict on the winner between Mexican Tamales vs Texan Tamales? I must admit it is a complete tie. I love the fat little Mexican tamale with all that fluffy masa (how could you not, when its flavoured with so much pork lard?) but then the skinny Texan cousin with their rich fillings also goes down a treat. Frankly if you enjoy tamales you will enjoy both versions.
But I do have to admit one thing – now that I know how much time and effort it is to make tamales, I would be lying if I were to say this is going to be a staple in our household (which our waistline are probably very thankful for) but I am so pleased that I know how. One day when C and I no longer live in this wonderful country, where the only Mexican food we will get is from some D-rate establishment sporting names such as ‘Mas Burritos’ or ‘Tequila Tex Mex’, I will remember this day fondly and may even break out my tamale steamer!