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Of the many delicacies of Mexican cuisine, tamales have always had a special place at my table. My first experience with tamales goes back to a trip to Mexico I made a long while back. I was visiting Puebla and after exiting one of its many beautiful churches, I found an older woman, wearing local typical dress, seated in front of a big pot. The sure thing is that an older señora like this can be found all over Mexico, but what drew me to her were two things: the aroma wafting from that giant pot and the fact that she made no attempt to lure anyone, simply content to focus on her cooking chores at the makeshift kitchen she set up.
I drew closer and she told me she sold tamales. I said, “give me one to try.” “What kind would you like,” she replied. I didn’t know back then that a tamal could be different kinds.
In the Caribbean, a tamale is of corn and it can have pork or chicken, but the key characteristic is the texture of the corn. Staring at the huge list of fillings and sauces for her tamales, I chose a chicken tamale with mole sauce. Truly a heavenly experience!
During my stay, I learned a lot about Mexican tamales and their centuries-old place in Mexican culture and history. I couldn’t try them all, since the variety can reach hundreds or thousands of different types. Luckily, in New York I have been able to continue to try and make different tamales from different regions of Mexico.
Tamales are differentiated principally by their wrapping, their filling, their size and their ingredients. Some are wrapped in plantain leaves, others in corn leaves. Their fillings can be cheese, meat, vegetables or fruit. Their size is more or less the same in all regions of Mexico though in Michoacán they make the corundas, which are smaller, triangular-shaped tamales. The ingredients include a variety of chiles (and what a variety exist in Mexico!), which fruits (if they are sweet), cheese or meat will be used. If you think about it, you could build an entire encyclopedia of the Mexican tamale.
What nobody can deny is that a big platter of tamales, especially if they are different kinds, is a wonderful surprise for the palate. You have to set aside the myth that all Mexican food is spicy. Not true. The heat is optional in many of these dishes, and though many Mexicans prefer their food spicy, heat is not necessary to create many dishes, tamales included.
Further, the Mexican tamale generally does not involve the complicated preparation of a Cuban tamale or a Puerto Rican pastel, for which you have to grind sweet corn or plantain and other ingredients. The masa of Mexican tamales is made with corn flour and is prepared with a variety of ingredients. That’s why it’s easier to make so many different fillings. You can even try making tamales in different shapes, because the flavor is really where it’s at.
Yield: 20 to 22 tamales
1 pound masa mix for tamales (masa flour)
½ pound margarine
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups chicken broth or water
4 roma tomatoes, skinless and seedless, diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
¼ Spanish onion, diced
Salt to taste
Fresh queso blanco (white cheese)
Thin strips of jalapeño or other pepper
½ pound cooked shredded chicken
½ pound cooked shredded pork
22 tamale leaves, soaked overnight and then drained
1. Whip margarine until creamy. Add the masa flour, baking powder, salt and chicken broth or water.
2. Mix the masa dough by hand or with an electric mixer until spongy. Let it rest while you prepare the sauce.
3. Blend in a blender tomatoes, garlic, onion and salt to make sauce. Add some of the sauce to the masa dough.
4. Spread 2 tablespoons of masa dough on each tamale leaf. Place the jalapeno pepper strips on the masa.
5. Place the chicken and pork, as you wish, over the masa dough. Roll the tamale leaves, and fold the ends to keep the tamale closed.
6. Place assembled tamales in a tamale steamer pan with water at the bottom, and cook for 45–60 minutes at medium-high heat. Tamales are ready when they detach easily from the leaves.
7. Serve tamales with the remaining sauce.
Other recipes by Denisse:
Pastelón de Yuca y Pollo
Polvorosa de Pollo (Venezuelan-style Chicken Pot Pie)
Cod in Tomato Sauce
Mexican-Style Shrimp Ceviche
Pulled Chicken with Jalapeño-Honey Mustard Panini
Serenata de Bacalao (Puerto Rican Codfish Salad)
Shrimp Asopao with Pigeon Peas