#28 learn how to make tamales

I just bought a tamale on the way home, and when I opened it up, it had a chicken foot in it. This made me think of my quest to learn how to make these little pockets of hot and yummy goodness, a goal which I fulfilled in Cozumel in March 2009.

They asked if i wanted the head. I said no.

They asked if i wanted the head. I said no.

We have some friends here in Cozumel (Alfredo and Letty), a fantastic Mexican couple who speak very little English. I mentioned to them that I’d like to learn to cook some traditional Yucatan food, and next thing I know, they arrange a weekend where on Saturday they whisk me off to the mercado (where I buy a whole chicken for 20 pesos) and on Sunday, Letty’s mother Mami shows up to teach me. Well. She’s so cute I just want to cuddle her, and she’s so Mayan she speaks a Spanish that I have trouble following. Whatever; she’s here to teach me, and so we roll up our sleeves.

I discover that tamales have two insides (filling and sauce) and two outsides (masa and wrapper). Each requires prep work and then the assembly. No wonder we shopped on Saturday; this is obviously going to be an all day project.

We begin with the chicken. Chop chop, pull the fat off, throw it in a pot to cook, with some bay leaf, oregano and achiote (also known as recado rojo). The best part about this bit is at this point, Alfredo and Letty left to get a cooking pot of some kind, leaving me and Mami alone. Even though she’s always been rather quiet when in the larger group, she does not stop talking the entire time we are working. At one point I ask her (in my best Spanish) “Did you just tell me a story about when you were a young girl, and you and your friends pulled the tongues out of turkeys?” she nods enthusiastically; “Si! Si!” Oh. I thought so, but that didn’t make any sense.

saucy, chickeny goodness

saucy, chickeny goodness

While the chicken is cooking, we go to work on the wrappers (we used banana leaves) which need to have the stringy part of the leaf pulled off (we later us this to tie up the tamales), and they need to be wiped clean. Then the masa; that is a corn based dough that makes up the outer layer of the tamale. We had bought dough (as opposed to flour) and so all that is needed is to add vegetable oil and knead it. Oh yeah, and by now the chicken is out of the pot, and the spicy mixture it had cooked in had some masa added to it for thickening, and is simmering on the stove. This will be the sauce in the tamales. The kitchen is smelling pretty good by this time.

ready for the oven

ready for the oven

Now it is time for assembly. A banana leaf or two on the bottom, a bit of masa shaped into a pizza crust sort of thing, covered with some of the red sauce then some chicken, a few peppers, and some more red sauce. A little pile of saucy, chickeny goodness. This gets collected together into a round-ish mound, and if the top doesn’t close, you make it a little flat masa hat and just cover that hole up, and then put some more red sauce on the top. Now you’re talking. That’s a tamale, baby. Wrap it up in the banana leaf, tie it closed, and you’re done.

We baked some and we steamed some and then we ate almost all of them. What a fantastic meal that was. I loved the feel of the dough, and I loved knowing that it was what my grammas would have thought of as good and stodgy. No one will go hungry with a tamale in their belly. Inexpensive, wholesome and fun to make.

cochinita and tamales on the barbeque in st. albert

cochinita and tamales on the barbeque in st. albert

I made some of these for some friends at home in Canada; wow! either my friends are easy to impress, or tamales are a worldwide hit!

What I learned from this adventure: Do not let a little thing like a perceived language barrier keep you from enjoying someone or somewhere, or learning something new. Charades is universal, and everyone understand a smile and your laughter.

p.s. when we made these tamales, no chicken foot was used. Nada.

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~ by ktatkins on November 12, 2009.

7 Responses to “#28 learn how to make tamales”

  1. Sounds delicious. We’ll ask you to make them when you visit Portland.

  2. Should you prepare tamales here in Portland, we expect chicken feet.

  3. You can buy chicken feet at the Portland Farmers’ Market. Saw a pile of them there on Saturday. Of course, you can also buy some damn fine tamales there too.

  4. A friend of ours from Pennsylvania spent a semester of college in Mexico studying pottery. She returned with tamale-making skills. I recall that lard is used in the masa, though I don’t see it here. Was it already in the dough?

  5. Portland Farmers Market only had turkey legs today. We may have missed our window.

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