Contrary to the popular opinion of most "gringos," the tamale has evolved from a "walk-around" food like a burrito to a delicacy. The proper way to eat a tamale is with a knife, fork and plate and at a table full of family and friends. Originating over 10,000 years ago in Mexico and Central America, the tamale, once a staple for land travelers, has evolved into a celebratory food eaten at Christmas and other special holidays. Preparation is time consuming, and each family has its own method that has been passed down through the generations for making the stuffed corn husks.
Deconstructing the Tamale
A tamale consists of three essentials:
The wrapping is usually a soaked corn husk but can be a banana or an agave leaf.
- Masa: Corn
mash, known as masa, is made with water and lime. Added fat used as a
binder comes from lard or vegetable shortening. Mexican chefs, moms and abuelas
consider the filling ratio to be 60 percent masa and 40 percent filling. If
times are lean, just the masa stuffed in a wrapper constitutes a tamale.
- Filling: Originally, the filling was anything the hunter-gatherers brought home. Traditionally, marinated chicken, beef or pork shredded and topped with salsa and cheese is placed inside the wrapper. Today, vegetarian tamales are made with any vegetable and beans.
No Substitutions, Please
Thin corn husks are ideal for tamales, as they allow the steam to penetrate the skin and add subtle flavor to the filling. Leaves are not as porous. The husks can be purchased dry in most Latin American markets. Soak the husks in hot (not boiling) water from the tap for about 30 minutes to soften them and make them pliable. Spread them out on a tray as you prepare the filling.
Making Masa and Using Fillings
Masa is made with a special type of corn mash known as "masa" or "maseca" – not corn meal. Look for a bag of masa that is specially milled for tamales. Place it in a bowl and add paprika, salt, chili powder and garlic powder. Mix it well with your hands before adding oil and then broth.
Then, give it the float test by dropping a piece of the masa into a glass of water. If the masa doesn't float, it's too thick. Add more broth and try the test again until it's ready. You want it thin and light. Spread the masa into the husk.
The filling can be any meat that is sautéed and drained. Shred the meat and top the masa with it. Add salsa, cheese or any condiment of your choice. Then, wrap the tamale securely in the husk and steam on low for at least two hours.
The Proper Way to Eat Tamales
The first rule for how to eat a tamale is to open the husk, revealing the filling and masa. Top it with red or green salsa and cheese if that's what you prefer as well as some sour cream, chopped tomatoes and/or guacamole. Beans and rice are traditionally served with the tamale, and a nice, cold beer is the best accompaniment.
If you love street food and don't carry utensils around with you, a tamale can be squeezed like a toothpaste tube until the filling meets your mouth. That's what they did in 8000 B.C., and some traditions never die.