In our Modern Mexican cooking class last week, everyone was excited to learn how to make tamales. I still remember one of my first experiences eating tamales – it was delicious. It was a hot day in Oaxaca, Mexico, as we strolled the swarming zócalo (market square). Merchants hawked trinkets and huge coloured balloons. Women with large trays balanced on their heads called out “chapulines”. Looking into their trays, I knew I was about to experience a bit of old Mexico. Chapulines are fried grasshoppers, a delicacy in Oaxaca, best enjoyed with a squeeze of lime. But the food that is unsurpassed in my memory were the wonderful tamales – freshly wrapped and steamed, filling the air with the soothing aroma of hot roasted corn. Tamales are a religious experience, so to speak, being an essential part of Mexican religious holidays such as the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated with gusto in early November. You also see them at weddings and most celebrations.
Tamales, sometimes called “little bundles of joy”, are usually filled with corn masa (masa harina) which is a very fine maize made from dried corn cooked with calcium oxide (known as lime water when hydrated). I have also seen these aromatic packages filled with mashed beans, quinoa (a grain), seafood and vegetables. They can be coloured with different varieties of corn maize or enlivened with chilli purées.
Tamales are a timeless food of Mexico, the American Southwest, Central and South America. Everywhere they are made differently and the flavours are unique. In the American Southwest and northern Mexico, tamales are stuffed and wrapped in dried corn husks – which have been soaked in water to make them pliable – then tied and steamed. In southern Mexico and Central America, banana leaves are most common as a wrapping. I have also seen tamales wrapped in avocado leaves and fresh corn husks. Other ingredients that make up a tamale are some liquid – usually stock, water or milk – and some type of fat. Lard is the fat of choice in Mexico, but vegetable shortening can also be used. The secret to light-textured tamales is to let the dough rest for one hour before preparing the tamales. The following recipe is a basic one to which you can add any filling you like, such as shredded roasted duck or chicken, or goat’s cheese. For a sweet version, add a pinch of salt, substitute milk for chicken stock, omit the corn and flavour with coconut. One of my favourite ways to enjoy them is simply with the fresh and zesty Pico de Gallo, which plays so well with the earthy flavour of the masa.
Roasted Corn Tamales with “Pico De Gallo”
Pico De Gallo
6 small roma tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
1 jalapeño chilli, seeded and finely chopped
½ red capsicum, finely chopped
½ green capsicum, finely chopped
½ Spanish onion, finely chopped
¼ cup coarsely chopped coriander
Juice of 1 lime
- For Pico de Gallo, combine all ingredients in a small bowl, season to taste and mix well.
1 ear corn, husk and silks removed
1¾ cups masa harina (see note)
1¼ cups hot water
1½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
¼ cup cold chicken stock
250 gm cold lard or vegetable shortening, chopped
12 dried corn husks (see note)
- Char-grill or barbecue corn, turning occasionally, until the kernels are slightly browned. Cool, then cut kernels from the cob.
- Place masa harina in the bowl of a food processor or electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. With the motor running, gradually add the water in a slow, steady stream until the dough forms into a ball. Process for 1 minute further, then transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Combine salt, baking powder and chicken stock in a small bowl, mix well and set aside. Return masa harina dough to a clean food processor bowl and process for 3 minutes.
- With the motor running, gradually add the lard or shortening, about 50 gm at a time. Continue processing for another 3 minutes or until smooth and light, stopping the food processor occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. If using mixer use a medium speed to whip the dough so more air is put through it and the dough is light and fluffy.
- With motor running, gradually add stock mixture in a steady stream and process until incorporated, then process 2 minutes further. Remove bowl from processor and stir in corn kernels (dough will be very soft). Spoon dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and stand for 20 minutes, or until at room temperature. Meanwhile, soak the dried corn husks in warm water for 20 minutes.
- Lay the husks flat on absorbent paper and pat dry. Select 8 of the largest and most perfect husks and set aside. Tear 2 remaining husks lengthwise into sixteen 3mm-wide strips and set aside for tying tamales. Lay out the reserved corn husks on a flat surface. Divide the dough into 8 portions and place a portion on each husk, then spread the dough evenly in each husk, leaving a 2.5 cm border around husk edge. If the husks are too small to contain the dough, use two husks per tamale. If adding a filling, spread the filling on top of the masa dough. Bring the sides of each husk together and roll to completely enclose the dough. Tie a corn husk “ribbon” around each end to secure closed. It may be necessary to tie 2 ribbons at each end to secure firmly.
- Place the tamales in the top of a steamer, seam-side down, cover with a tight-fitting lid and steam over simmering water for 25-30 minutes, adding more boiling water as necessary, or until tamales are just firm to the touch. Stand the tamales for 5 minutes before serving with Pico de Gallo.
Serves 4 as an entrée or light lunch.
Note : Masa harina and dried corn husks are available from Monterey Foods and Fireworks Food in Sydney and Aztec Products in Melbourne. See my blog posts on these and other specialty suppliers.