Cooking Like A Mexican

January 25, 2016 Edition

Tamales usually play a part in any Mexican celebration but there is one day in which they are a must, because that is what the tradition marks. No other food can be served in La Calendaria day on February 2nd. The origins of the Día de la Candelaria  have a religious meaning; it is the day of the presentation of Christ to the temple. Jewish law said that babies had to be taken to the temple after 40 days because women were considered to be unclean until this period had passed since giving birth. So on 2nd February (40 days after Christmas), Mary took Jesus to the temple along with candles or Candelas hence the name Candelaria, and it is the day of the purification of the Virgin and the presentation of the Lord. Even though this is a Catholic festivity, Mexico is the only religious country celebrating it by taking images of baby Jesus to the temples. And by eating tamales. And did you know tamale is not correct? It’s either one tamal or multiple tamales. Tamales is plural.

tamales.jpgA tamal from Nahuatl: tamalli is a traditional Mexican dish made of a starchy corn based dough which we call masa, which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. We Mexicans love to see rookies try to eat the banana leaf it’s wrapped in.

Tamales were one of the staples found by the Spanish Conquistadors when they first arrived in Mexico and were soon widely spread throughout their other colonies. Tamales are said to have been as ubiquitous and varied as the sandwich is today. Makes sense, because they didn’t have bread to hold their fixins together.

Tamales originated as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. Aztec and Maya civilizations as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca before them used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers who were on the go. There have also been reports of tamales used in the Inca empire long before the Spanish visited the new world. Tamales made their way to Europe and became one of the first samples of the culture that the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization.

Because this of this diversity of cultures, this ancient dish has a large variety in flavors, ingredients, and presentation while still being a tamal. Almost every region and state in the country has its own kind of tamal. It is said that there are between 500 and 1000 different types of tamales all around the country. Some experts estimate the annual consumption in hundreds of millions every year.

Tamales can be further filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned and are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before cooking, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are typically steamed until firm.

Tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied by hot atole or champurrado, that are maize-based beverages also of indigenous origin. Street vendors can be seen serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots.

In Mexico City, the tamal is often placed inside a wheat bread roll to form a torta de tamal (also called guajolota), substantial enough to keep a person satiated until Mexico’s traditional late lunch hour. (2 pm for lunch, requires a big breakfast).

The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole, but another very traditional variation is to add pink colored sugar to the corn mix and fill it with raisins or other dried fruit to make a sweet tamal. Instead of corn husks or plantain leaves, banana leaves are used in tropical parts of the country such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and the Yucatán Peninsula. These tamales are rather square in shape, often very large— 15 inches or more— and thick.

The cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens if not hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough (and the coarseness of the filling) is a matter of personal taste.

How many recipes for tamales exist? Well, right now I have 54 in front of me, and this is only in a thin cook book that I have, and maybe there are many more.


There are two ways to do this. You can start them from scratch, or if you do want to work so much you can buy corn dough in any place where they sell tortillas we call it masa and it is sold by the kilo. One kilo is 2.2 lbs.

Starting from scratch.

For the dough:

1 cup of lard

2 cups of Corn flour (the most common brand is “Maseca”) and it right there where the wheat flour is in the supermarket aisle)

1 cup of chicken broth or water warm

1 tablespoon of salt

1 tablespoon of baking powder.

For the filling:

1 1/2 lb of pork meat (the same kind that you buy for pork roast)

2 pieces of chile guajillo

3 cloves of garlic

½ onion

Salt to taste

rolling the tamales

30 pieces of corn husk (they sell them in a bag too, in any grocery store)

Preparation step by step, pay attention, Gringo

Soak the corn husk for 1 ½ hours in warm water to get them soft and manageable. Then drain off.

Boil the pork meat with 1 clove of garlic and ¼ onion. Once it is cooked, shred it and reserve.

Cut the chile tips, open them, and remove seeds and veins from the inside. Put them to boil with water for 20 minutes. Blend them with 2 garlic cloves, ½ onion and a little bit of salt.

In a pan, put a little bit of oil, add the shredded pork meat and pour in the chile sauce, cook it all together for around 10 minutes. Reserve.

Start blending the lard to a buttery consistence, add the corn flour, salt and baking powder, little by little add chicken broth, keep on blending, the idea is to get some air into the dough, continue until you have a smooth consistence, which is soft enough to be able to spread it on the corn husk. You will know that the mix is perfect when you take a small amount of it and put it in water. If it floats, it means that is ready.

If you decide to go from the dough already done, buy only 1 lb. just add chicken broth and lard enough to get the same consistence. (Lard first, chicken broth, little by little)

Now, and here is where the fun part comes.

Grab a corn husk on your hand, and spread the corn dough, more or less 1 inch thick. At the center, put one spoon of the cooked pork meat, roll it and fold the tip. If you notice that the meat or the sauce comes out, try a little bit more. Repeat the same thing with as many tamales you will like to cook, but at least 25 so it will be worth the effort. Put them inside a steamer vertically. Like little soldiers standing on their tippy toes.  Once all your tamales are in place, cover with some other corn husks on top, a plastic bag, or foil. Steam for 1 ½ hours and voila! You will know that the tamales are ready when the wrapping comes off easily. If you made lots, don’t worry, you can freeze them, don’t remove the husk, and then microwave to heat them up.

Alejandra Sarachaga