Cooking Like A Mexican

Pumpkin tamales

Pumpkin season is finally here, and I don’t want to fall behind on the pumpkin spice fad started by the mermaid coffee brand. Just kidding, Mexico started using pumpkin since well, thousands of years ago. Now, I know tamales might be a little intimidating to make for foreigners, but it’s an art that is mastered with time and patience, and the tips I’ll give you here.

Tamales are as old as Quetzalcoatl, and there are very few people who still make them the real traditional way, “de Piedra” or from the stone. Dry corn was originally used, ground in a Metate (a large stone with a long stone pestle) with beans, spices, chiles, and wrapped in corn husks, avocado or banana leaves and steamed until cooked. They were only soft when fresh because after that they would “turn to stone.”


When the Spaniards conquered Mexico, they brought pigs, and with pigs we had lard, so the tamales were no longer “stone” after they lost the heat from the first cooking, au contraire, tamales became tastier, more durable and softer. Tamales have all shapes, sizes and colors depending on the region they are made– some big, some small, square, round, red, green, black, white, and “blind” without filling, or with very generous amounts of stuffing. 

Tamales can NOT be made in small batches, so this is to feed a crowd of about 20 people.

Get your hands on a steamer too.

The masa for the tamales should be made by hand and in a large container.

The lard should be beaten until white and frothy, like the foam of the ocean.

You will know when the masa has been beaten properly if a small ball is dropped in a glass of water, it should float. If it doesn’t, beat until the experiment has a positive outcome.

Whatever liquid is added to the masa, should be strained and lukewarm.

The leaves or husks should be properly prepared; if using corn (not this recipe, but an important tip anyway) the ends should be cut with scissors and soaked for about 10 hours. Banana leaves should be lightly boiled or grilled so they are flexible enough. Both should be completely dry before using them.

It’s okay if you need more leaves or husks for wrapping, so the cooking water does not ruin the tamal.

At the bottom of the steamer, a bed of leaves or husks (depending on the recipe) is set, and tamales are placed vertically beginning from the sides working towards the bottom. Tamales should be snug but not tight. A bed of leaves or husks is placed at the top, followed by a thick rag that absorbs humidity.

To know that the steamer will not run out of water, a small coin is placed at the very bottom and should make noise while cooking; no noise means there is no more water. Depending on the cooking time, more can be added, boiling hot.

To know if a tamal is properly cooked, it should come off the leaf or husk easily.



For the masa

2 lb. of corn flour (maseca has a special “tamal” kind of flour) it’s best if you can buy it from a local shop, ask your neighborhood tortillería.

15 oz of lard (pork is best, but vegetable can be used too)

1 teaspoon of baking powder

6 banana leaves (cut in 11-inch squares)

For the filling

1 oz of oil or lard

1 large onion, finely chopped

10 oz of tomato puree (natural is ALWAYS better)

6 cloves of garlic

1 oz of raisins

1 oz of almonds

6 pepper corns

8 oz of pumpkin (can use canned, but castile pumpkin is in season) raw, peeled and diced

14 oz of dried and peeled shrimp

20 green olives

10 capers

3 pickled chiles, sliced in strips

2 tablespoons of vinegar

8 tablespoons of vegetable oil

Salt and pepper to taste



For the masa:

 • Beat the lard until fluffy. This is what will make your tamales fluffy or doughy so make sure you do this right.

 • Add the corn flour and baking powder slowly and through a strainer, beating constantly until a smooth and consistent dough is formed. It should feel like playdough, not dry but not too sticky either.

For the filling:

 • Place the oil or lard in a pot, bring to high heat, fry the onions.

 • Blend the tomato puree, almonds and raisins, and add to the pot carefully.

 • Add the pumpkin and let simmer for 7 minutes.

 • If you’re using fresh pumpkin, add two cups of water and let cook until tender.

 • Add the shrimp, ONLY AFTER THAT WILL YOU SEASON WITH SALT AND PEPPER, dried shrimp tends to be salty.

 • Add olives, capers, chiles and vinegar.

 • Bring to a boil until thick.

To assemble:

 • Cut the banana leaves removing the middle vein, and cut the squares.

 • Place two spoonfuls of masa and spread in the middle, leaving about 3.5 inches on all sides.

 • Place a spoonful of filling in the middle of the masa

 • Fold both sides and then top and bottom, and tie with a thin piece of the same banana leaf or leftovers from the squares

 • Place in the steamer for an hour.