Similar to dumplings, tamales are packets of corn-based dough stuffed with a wide variety of fillings, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed until cooked through. Although they are eaten year-round, tamales are a Christmas tradition in Mexico and in the American Southwest. A tamalada is a tamale-making party in which groups of people, usually female family members, gather to make tamales to share and serve at holiday gatherings and meals.
Tamales have been a staple in Mexican cuisine dating back to the Aztecs, when women were called upon to prepare portable food for soldiers to take into battle. Virginia Wood of the "Austin Chronicle" links the ritual preparation and consumption of tamales at Christmastime to posadas, nine nightly pageants beginning on December 16 that portray Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, seeking food and shelter along the way. Among the traditional foods served during the posadas are tamales. From there, the practice of family- and community-based tamaladas emerged, both in Mexico and the United States.
The dough that forms the exterior of the tamale is almost always made from corn flour, or masa. While the dough can be made using dry corn flour (masa harina) and butter, the most authentic tamales are made with fresh masa and lard, argues Andrea Valdez of "Texas Monthly." The basic recipe for tamal dough is two parts masa to one part fat, blended either in a mixer or by hand with a cup or so of water or chicken broth and salt added to taste. The batter is ready when a small piece of it floats when dropped in a glass of water.
Tamales are versatile and can be filled with everything from pork to beans to raisins. Traditional meat tamales are typically filled with pork in red chile sauce or chicken in mole. Vegetarian tamales can be filled with black or pinto beans and cheese, or made "deaf" -- without fillings -- and served as an accompaniment to refried beans. Sweet tamales can be dyed pink using colored sugar and filled with raisins or other dried fruits.
Assembly and Cooking
After the dough is smooth and the ingredients have been prepared, it is time to assemble the tamales. Common practice at tamaladas is to set up an an assembly line, wherein one person takes a corn husk, which has been presoaked to soften it, smears a thin, even layer of dough on it. She then passes the tamale to the next person in line, who will place two tablespoons of filling on top of the dough. The next person in line folds in the sides of the husk around the filling and flips up the long "tail" of the husk. Then the tamales are placed in a steamer until it is full. Covered with a few husks, the tamales are steamed for 90 minutes, then eaten.
- New York Times: "Wrapped in Tradition"
- The Austin Chronicle: "Tamaladas y Posadas"
- Los Angeles Times: "It's Tamalada Time"
- Texas Monthly: "How to Throw a Tamalada"
- NBC Latino: "Teacher Makes 500 Tamales for Soldiers in Germany and Afghanistan"
- The Austin Times: "The History Behind Tamales"
- Frontera Recipes: Tacos, Enchiladas, Tamales & Tostadas
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