A Brief Taste Of The Latin American Tamale

May 4, 2013

We love to pack a little carry on of food before getting on a plane. It’s a fine way to pass the time and avoid the bland, predictable and unhealthy!

My wife, Janet and I call them our “sky picnics”. Before heading to the airport In Mexico City, we bought half dozen tamales from a small Indian woman who was set up with no more than a blanket and some ceramic bowls on the sidewalk outside our hotel. Once airborne and informed of the altitude and flying time business we unearthed our tamale treasures! They were heavenly just plain out of the paper bag. The nearly timeless practice of wrapping tamales in corn husks had even kept ours warm! Our fellow travelers were munching factory made pretzels, poor things.

In the New World’s sacred and lay cult of maize, tamales play a key role. Tamale is a word derived from the Aztec language. They are found in most of the continent’s countries in all shapes and sizes. To many it may seem that tamales are specific to Mexico but that is not the case. Tamales have traveled all over the New World.

Since the Spanish arrived this basic dough is stuffed with variations of seasoned chicken, beef or pork, olives, raisins and chili peppers of potency that varies from country to country as the taste for heat is very different in say Cuba than Guatemala. Modern chefs have adapted fillings that include exotica such as foie gras, smoked salmon and even truffles.

The most common wrappers for tamales are cornhusks but they are also often wrapped in banana leaves or avocado leaves, depending on what’s available to a region. Once tamales are filled they are tied up and usually steamed, though sometimes they are baked. And I’ve enjoyed them griddled as well! In any case the wrapper is not edible but you will find yourself scraping the wrapper with the side of a spoon very often to get each and every morsel. I admit to picking up a husk or leaf and scraping the final bits of goodness off with my teeth! And once you do that you are in a club of sorts I’m sure.

Masa harina (literally "dough flour") is the common element in making most tamales. In fact, sometimes it, along with a dab of lard, is the only filling for tamales. It is flour made from dried masa, which is to say it's made with sun- or fire-dried corn kernels that have been cooked in lime-water. After having been cooked, then soaked in the lime-water overnight, the wet corn is ground into masa.

Tamale sizes vary from Colombia’s tiny Popayan tamalitos stuffed with pipián to hefty one-pounders from Peru, which are an entire meal. The aristocrat of the tamal family is Venezuela’s hallaca with its fine-grained cornmeal, savory stuffing and medium size, which make it an ideal appetizer and a popular dish at Christmas time. The Old West expression “hot tamales” is a misnomer because many types of tamale are not at all spicy, but corn sweet in dough and fairly mild in stuffing. Now if you want to add hot sauce, well that’s another story. Fly the tasty skies!