Tamales – a Mexican Christmas Tradition
In southern California, with its widespread Latin cultural influences, tamales are a Christmas tradition, even for those of non-Hispanic origins. You’ll find families ordering tamales from Mexican restaurants (we ordered ours from Las Barcas, a local neighborhood family-owned restaurant) or from some other inside connection established through a friend or co-worker who knows a family that makes tamales to sell during the holidays.
So naturally, including the art of tamale-making had to be part of my series on preserving traditions through cooking and I was lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend and fellow Orange County blogger, Daytripping Mom, aka Aracely, to experience it first-hand.
How Did Tamales Become a Tradition?
Being of an inquisitive mind, I wondered how the tradition of tamales began and discovered that it dates back to Meso-American times when, long before the Spaniards arrived, Mesoamericans believed that God crafted humans from corn. “Quite literally, corn was their substance of life.” An excerpt from a Seattle PI article states:
Because corn was so important, preciously wrapped tamales became a part of ritual offerings, a human stand-in, of sorts. “When the conquistadors came, and human sacrifice was no longer acceptable, they used tamales as a substitute, placing little bundles of corn as offerings,” says Alarcón.
To this day, the most sacred occasions in Mexico — baptisms, first communions, and special wedding anniversaries — are still marked with the ritual of tamale making.
How to Make Tamales
Enter Josefina Vega, Aracely’s mom, who makes 200-300 tamales every Christmas. She carries on the tradition of beginning at midnight on Christmas eve and working until 4 or 5 a.m. making the masa, slow-cooking the meat, soaking the corn husks, and assembling the tamales. Aracely added that, besides making tamales, the other tradition is having a tired and cranky mother on Christmas Day : ) Nonetheless, she is learning to make tamales and other Latin dishes so her family can appreciate the foods of their heritage.
The best tamales are made from fresh unprepared masa and corn husks purchased at Latin markets. Traditionally masa is mixed with lard, but Josefina uses soybean oil and olive oil rather than animal fat because its a healthier alternative and she is diabetic. The substitution can result in the masa being a little drier and less fluffy. Garlic, onion, and water from the cooked meat is added to the masa for flavor. Josefina doesn’t have a recipe but if you would like to try your hand at making tamales, here is one. Perfecting a dough (masa) that will be fluffy, not leaden, when it is steamed is the trickiest part of tamale making and, just like anything else, takes practice.
Tamale fillings vary by region (as do the wrappers and masa); savory fillings from shrimp to a rich, dark mole to sweet fillings of fruit such as pineapple and raisins. Josefina is from Sinaloa in northern Mexico where they use more vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Probably the most common filling is pork with pasilla chiles. Today, Josefina was making spicy pork tamales, with jalapeno peppers adding the heat – I don’t know about you, but I love spicy! Not hot, just a little kick that fills your mouth and is soothed by a gulp of icy cold beverage.
But I digress… The meat is mixed with pasilla chiles, cumin, oregano, garlic and onion and is slow-cooked in the oven for several hours. While the meat is cooking, prepare the masa and soak the corn husks in water until they are soft.
Organization is Key to Tamale Making
The other key to tamale success is Organization: before starting the actual assembly, the fillings should be ready to go, leaf wrappers and ties (if you use them) should be soaked and cleaned, and a steamer should be prepared. I now have a baker’s dozen of tamales that I’m going to prepare for New Years Day, so I’ll let you know how they turn out. Fortunately, all I have to do is steam them for the right amount of time, my notes say to check them after 45 minutes – if the tamale is easily removed from the husk, i.e. the cornmeal is not sticking, then they’re done. Looking forward to it!