June 10, 2009

How to eat a tamale, really!

Tamales Santa Rosalia Style shown below
It surprised me to know a lot of my readers want to know how to eat a tamale. If you want to know what to eat with a tamale, click on this entry. Otherwise herein I will tell you exactly how to eat a tamale since it strikes me that there might be people out there in the world that have never seen, much less eaten a tamale. How sad! Or having been presented with one, they didn’t have some perceived etiquette down pat. I can’t keep them in suspense any longer.

Tamales are an ancient food. They were probably invented by the Mexican people (as in Aztecs or Mesoamericans) and now days follow a southerly flow from the southwest USA through Mexico down to Central and South America. No one knows for sure when or who invented the tamale, but we do know tamales have been written about since pre-Columbian days. In the 1550's, the Aztecs served the Spaniards tamales during their visits to Mexico. The tamale changes its name, appearance and flavor in each country until it gets to Chile where it loses any resemblance to a real tamale but just becomes a lump of masa without any filling. This story is not about those other tamales, but about the ones you find in Mexico and the southwest USA.

Tamales are a labor of love. They are generally made in larger batches of say 12 dozen or more if someone is selling them, or 3 to 6 dozen if made for one's family. They seem to cost about the same if you buy them from someone no matter what country you live in. In Mexico, they are the food of choice for any fiesta, celebration or holiday, but are available everywhere in the Mexican-American world all year long if you ask around. In the US if you are buying tamales you generally buy a dozen at a time, but in Mexico they are not sold by the dozen; you can buy any number without regard to dozens. I don’t know why.

I grew up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where my mother bought tamales from Manuela who took orders and made up batches for her devotees in her own home. Here in Colorado we can get delicious tamales, the hottest spiciest ones I’ve ever eaten that are sold by some Latin women from their coolers outside the Mexican super markets on Federal Blvd.; in Taos, New Mexico, Abe’s Cantina and Cocina in Arroyo Seco has the best tamales in the world because of their unparalleled masa. Eat a tamale in El Paso, Texas or Tucson, Arizona and it will be different yet again. In Santa Rosalia the tamales have two olives in them (watch out for the pits!) as they do often once you cross the border and keep on going south. US tamales tend to be spicier, those in Mexico more bland but tasty.

It usually takes about 2 whole days to make them with helpers. No one would make them by themselves--they would be crazy, it is so much work. At least two or three or more people are involved in an assembly production of these delectable morsels. Often the tamale filling is made the day ahead from the pig’s head, beef ribs or roasts, and of both dark and light meat of the chicken. The meats are not mixed together; you would buy pork (mine and Esperando's favorites), beef or chicken tamales. Regionally there are sweet tamales with no meat or tamales cooked in banana leaves, but they fall outside of scope of my treatise. The meat is boiled until it falls off the bones and then whatever seasoning, such as red or green chile sauce, or broth with spices is added to it so that you have a rather saucy wet filling. Masa (a dough) is made from nixtamal (very finely ground corn meal) mixed with lard and some of the broth from the meat. The masa is spread to about ½ inch upon corn husks that have first been soaked in hot water. Next a generous spoonful of filling is placed on the masa and it is rolled up cigarette style, so the filling is encased in the masa, and the husks keep it all wrapped together, the ends of the husks are folded over or tied with strips of husk. The tamales are carefully packed into a large pot to steam for 2 hours or more.

But how do you eat them you ask? That is the best and easiest part. The tamales have already been cooked when you purchase them, so you steam them covered in a basket for 7-10 minutes or so, it doesn’t take long, just a little longer if they have been frozen. Or, you can microwave a tamale on high for 1 minute. Take them out—be careful they are really hot! Unroll the husk carefully so the tamale stays whole. Throw the husk away, sliding the tamale onto your plate (or move the husk to the side of your plate if there is no where to toss it) and eat it with a fork. Some people like to pour red or green chile sauce or salsa on top, but if they are great tamales that is not necessary. There are plenty of bad or so-so tamales out there, but nothing can beat the taste of a great tamale. For those wanting to know even more Gourmet Sleuth has alot more details.

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