Craving Tamales? Head To San Jose

Tamales Doña Nina has been selling homemade tamales for almost two decades
BY: CALEB HOOGLAND

Chances are if you have ever visited San Jose, you’ve been to the Plaza Mijares, the main plaza downtown. And if you have been to the plaza, you have probably eaten a tamal from the little tamal stand that’s always stationed there. (If you haven’t eaten one of their tamales, stop what you are doing and get down there!)

Tamales Dona Nina has been selling tamales in the plaza for almost two decades. Julieta Lujan, the original founder of the tamal stand, came to Los Cabos from the Mexican state of Oaxaca 18 years ago. Hailing from a small rural town of 300 people that barely has electricity, she came to San Jose specifically to open a business and find opportunity.

tamales.JPGWhen she first started making and selling tamales, she set up in the barrio with one lonely cooler. From there, her business started growing. Within a year, she got a permit from the city to open a second site on the plaza to sell her tamales. But a series of events took her back to Oaxaca shortly thereafter, so Julieta left her by now thriving tamale business to her sister, Nina, who has been running it ever since. Over the years, Nina has pretty much taken over the barrios of San Jose by opening six different tamal stations throughout the city. But none of them sell as many tamales as the plaza location.

The approach Nina takes to making tamales is very old school. Like many Mexican women, she insists that she make most of the food herself, lest another person ruin the taste of the tamales. Altogether, she needs about 700 tamales per day. Of these 700 tamales, about 500 will go to the plaza. She said the exact number varies by day and time of the year. More tamales sell during the winter months than during summer months, and the busiest day of the week is Thursday, because of the Art Walk.

Because of the large quantity of tamales she has to make, her workday is very long. Nina gets up and starts working at about 5:30 in the morning. The meat and salsa must be cooked, the masa (dough) must be prepared and the corn husks must be washed and dried before the tamales can be assembled. Nina says she actually prefers to use banana leaves instead of corn husks, but banana palms aren’t as readily available here in Baja California Sur as they are in Oaxaca.

Since Tamales Dona Nina started, almost nothing has changed in how the tamales are made. There are no fancy stoves involved in the cooking process. The tamales are still steamed using firewood as a fuel source, which is one reason why they taste so good. All the tamales are made fresh daily. The corn husks the tamales are steamed in come locally from Baja California Sur.

Making tamales is hard work. Once the tamales have been stuffed and folded, they are then placed to steam. By the time all 700 tamales are finished, about a 12-hour process, it’s time to clean up and get everything ready for the next day. Nina and her family do this six to seven days every week (sometimes they take Wednesdays off).

Once the tamales are cooked, it’s time to start selling. The tamales are packed in ice chests and sent to the plaza stand, arriving around 6:00 p.m. They usually have six coolers full of tamales at that location.

Tamales Dona Nina is still a family run business; all the people involved in the making and selling of the tamales are related. And other family members have little carts where they sell corn. The husks from this corn is saved and sold to the family members who make tamales.

Tamales Dona Nina is at the Plaza every night from about 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. You have your choice of shredded beef in red sauce, shredded chicken in green sauce, or a sweet corn tamal. And if you have an event and you need lots of tamales, they take orders as well. Stop by the plaza and eat a tamal ASAP, now that you know how good we have it here in San Jose. And since they only cost about $1 USD, you might as well buy a few.

What Exactly Is A Tamale?

A tamale, (Spanish: tamal,) is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa or dough, (starchy, and usually corn-based), which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The wrapping is discarded before eating.

Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and chilies, nearly any preparation, according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.

Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. The Aztec and the Maya, as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca before them, used tamales as portable food, often to support their armies, but also for hunters and travelers.

The diversity of native languages in Mesoamerica led to a number of local words for the tamal, many of which remain in use today. The Spanish singular of tamales is tamal. The English word tamale differs from the Spanish word by having a final vowel.

Oh, and the significance of the name Tamales Dona Nina is it’s Dona Nina’s tamales. The name of the business goes before the word describing the business. Dona is a word of respect for an older woman. Like senora, but more respectful and usually used on an older woman than a senora.

OK, now that we’ve got you through all that, go back and read the story again. Read it like a pro, read it like the word warrior that you are.