Julian Samaniego has eaten his mother Carlota Morales de Samaniego's traditional pork tamales most of his life.
Don’t even get them started.
Don’t even think about asking a Tucsonan about eating tamales at Christmas.
But if you do, stand back. Because if that Tucsonan happens to be a longtime resident or have Mexican roots, you’re likely to get hit with a dose of nostalgia and sentimentality that will have you reaching for a box of Kleenex – or a fork.
Tucsonans take their tamales very seriously. This time of year especially, it’s not visions of sugarplums that dance in the heads of many an Old Pueblo dweller, but tamales.
Just ask Julian Samaniego.
“Oh man, you gotta have tamales at Christmas,” he says. “It’s the thing to do.”
Samaniego has been gobbling up his mother’s tamales for most of his 54 years. And Carlota Morales de Samaniego knows full well how much her hijo enjoys the corn husk-wrapped treats.
“I always had to make a lot because you ate a lot,” she told him recently while assembling tamales in the plant-filled kitchen of her West Side home.
Small but sturdy and quick with an impish smile, Carlota exemplifies the tamales tradition. She’s been making them for most of her 85 years.
As a girl in Mexico, she remembers helping as her family of five boys and five girls made “dozens and dozens” of them just before Christmas.
“Everybody would have their own job,” she says, adding that her grandmother would always keep a close eye on the labor-intensive process.
But the preparation – and of course the anticipation – began long before the holiday. Carlota says her father would spend weeks fattening up the pig that would be slaughtered to provide the slightly spicy tamales’ filling.
“Tamales got to have meat,” Julian interjected.
Well, not green corn tamales. Always a favorite among vegetarians, these cheese and roasted chile-stuffed tamales are typically enjoyed in later summer, when the corn ripens.
As far as Carlota is concerned, the secret to a good tamal is in the masa. If it’s not just right, it will stick to the husk and result in an unappetizing mess.
Julian, not to mention countless other tamales fans, would never stand for that. Not at Christmas, when unwrapping a tasty tamal is indeed a gift.
There’s an entire culture surrounding tamales and their origins. Rule No. 1: Don’t eat the husk. Here are the answers to many of the most commonly asked questions about the husky treats:
What is a tamal?
The proper singular term in Spanish is tamal. It’s basically a packet of ground corn mixed with a filling, such as green corn, beef or pork, and wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. The whole thing is steamed and unwrapped for eating.
When were the first tamales made?
It’s tough to pin it down, but we know tamales date to pre-Columbian Mexico and possibly further. Spanish literature from the 1500s indicates the Spaniards were served tamales by the Aztecs when they first visited Mexico.
What is masa?
At its most basic, masa is corn dough. It can be made with corn that has been heated, soaked, drained and ground into a fine-textured dough. Then, depending on the recipe, water, chicken broth, milk, salt and fats are added. For tamales dulces, sweet tamales, sugar and perhaps fruit are added to the masa.
What types of fillings can you put in tamales?
Anything! The most common fillings are probably beef, green corn and pork, but tamales can be made with squash, beans, fish, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, pumpkin seeds, curry or fruits, such as pineapple and strawberry. In the Old Pueblo, you might even find a prickly-pear tamal.
What kinds of wraps are used?
The most common is a dried corn husk, which is soaked to be made pliable enough to wrap around the masa and filling. Another common wrapper is a banana leaf, great for larger tamales because of the leaves size. Instead of soaking, however, banana leaves must be heated and wilted over an open flame to make them flexible.
ORDER IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS
You still have time to order Christmas tamales. All orders are for small amounts and in-store pick up.
EL CHARRO CAFE 311 N. Court Ave., 622-1922
Details: $36 for 18 tamales (several varieties); 24-hours’ notice
CASA MOLINA 6225 E. Speedway Blvd., 886-5468
Details: Smaller “cocktail” tamales, $14 per dozen, regular-size “dinner” tamales, $30 per dozen; 24 hours’ notice on a first-come, first-served basis.
TOOLEY’S CAFE 299 S. Park Ave., 203-8970
Details: Vegetarian, but not vegan, including fresh corn, green chile and cheese and Oaxacan (pork with mole in banana leaves); $15 per dozen, $8 for 6
LITTLE MEXICO RESTAURANT 698 W. Irvington Road, 573-2924
Details: $17 per dozen; red or green only; one-hour notice
LA FUENTE 1749 N. Oracle Road, 623-8659 and CHIHUAHUA CHARLIE’S and LA BUENA 234 E. 22nd St., 624-1796 (for both)
Details: All three have the same owners. $16 per dozen (red or green); same-day pickup unless ordering a few dozen or more.
LAS MARGARITAS 3602 E. Grant Road, 323-9880
Details: Red and green, $24 per dozen
RIGO’S 2527 S. Fourth Ave., 882-9323
Details: It closes at 3 p.m. Thursday, so order soon; red, green corn and pineapple, $16 per dozen, $8 for 6
LOS JARRITOS 4832 S. 12th Ave., 746-0364
Details: Order until Dec. 23 (24-hours’ notice), red, $13.99 per dozen
masa, or dough for her tamales by dropping a small ball into a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready. “>
Samaniego assembles her traditional pork tamales as she's done most of her 85 years.
The following recipes are courtesy of Culinary Concepts:
Basic Fresh Masa
1 2/3 cup soft butter
6 tablespoons margarine
2 to 3 cups broth
2 tablespoons salt
5 pounds unprepared fresh masa
In a bowl of a heavy mixer, combine butter and margarine and whip on high speed for 2 minutes, or until fluffy. Lower the speed to medium and add 1 cup of fresh masa and 1/4 cup of stock, alternately until well mixed and light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. The masa will look like spackle. If needed, add stock 1/4 cup at a time until the correct consistency is attained. Drop 1 teaspoon of masa in a cup of cold water and when it rises it is just right. Keep whipping until it floats. This makes enough for about 5 dozen tamales.
Tamales Rellenos de Fresa
(Strawberry Tamales of Veracruz)
30 corn husks, softened in hot water for 1 hour
2 pounds fresh tamales masa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3 sticks cinnamon bark
1 cup water, to boil cinnamon in
1/2 cup flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 cup strawberries, chopped
Mix masa, baking powder, cinnamon and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with electric mixer.
Soak the bark in the water for 2 hours before cooking. Bring water to a boil and let it reduce to 1/4 cup of cinnamon infusion, and discard the stick. Put eggs, flour and sugar in a food processor and mix until smooth. Set aside. Pour milk in a pot over medium. Heat milk with the cinnamon infusion until it starts to bubble. Lower the heat and gradually add some of the egg mixture that has been tempered with some of the warm milk mixture.
Continue to stir with a whisk until thick. The sauce should be the consistency of thick cream. After blending the clean strawberries, place them in a sieve to make a nice seedless puree. Mix the berry puree with the pastry cream. Let cream cool slightly.
Spread 2 tablespoons of the sweet masa on the corn husk and spread to a 4-inch square. Spread 1 large tablespoon of pastry cream in the center of the masa and spread it to almost cover the masa. Fold the side halves over the center to cover the remaining filling. Finally, fold the point of the corn husk to form a tamal. Arrange tamales vertically in the steamer and steam for I hour. Makes 18-20 tamales.
13 large dried cornhusks
10 ounces unsalted butter, softened (2 sticks plus 4 tablespoons)
4-1/4 cups masa harina
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 cups mango fruit purée (recipe below)
7 ounces flaked coconut
4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Grated nutmeg, to taste
Fresh fruit compote (recipe follows)
Cover husks with hot water and let stand for 1 hour. Drain and pat dry. Tear 1 cornhusk lengthwise into thin strips to make ties.
Place butter in a large bowl and beat on medium speed until creamy. Gradually add masa harina and baking powder mixing after each addition. Mixture will be crumbly. Stir in 2 cups of mango purée and 1 cup of coconut. (Mixture will not be too sticky.)
Divide mango mixture evenly among the 12 cornhusks. Pat each portion of mango mixture into a 5-1/2-by-4-1/2-inch rectangle, leaving at least a 1/2-inch open border on three sides and even more at the pointed end.
Combine egg whites, sugar, salt, butter and remaining coconut. Spoon this mixture evenly down the center of the masa mixture. Bring long sides together, pressing mango mixture to seal in coconut mixture. Twist pointed end closed and tie with cornhusk strip. Leave opposite end untied. Place a cup in the center of steamer basket and place tamales in a steamer with closed end down and open end up. Cover and steam for 10 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes. Trim open end of each tamal to allow filling to show. Spoon purée and fruit compote on a plate and place tamal on top. Sprinkle the rim of the plate with nutmeg.
Fresh fruit compote
1 cup peeled, chopped fresh mango
1 cup chopped fresh pineapple
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
2 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Combine all ingredients and stir until sugar dissolves.
Peel and cut mango and place in food processor and blend until smooth. Pour blended fruit through a wire strainer and chill until needed.
Makes 12 tamales.
Tamales de Chaya
(Swiss Chard Tamales)
3 garlic cloves, pressed
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
1/2 tablespoon serrano chile
1/2 cup cold beef stock
1 2/3 pound fresh masa
2 cups chaya or swiss chard, cooked and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Banana leaves softened and cut into 12, 10-by-12 inch pieces
1 cup queso fresco
1 recipe salsa roja de jitomate (recipe follows)
Place garlic, onion and chile with beef stock in a food processor and blend until smooth.
In a bowl mix together the masa, swiss chard, the blended and flavored cold stock and salt. Mix with your hand or a fork until all ingredients are mixed well. You don’t have to mix this dough a lot, just until ingredients are well incorporated.
Divide dough into 12 parts and fold each one in a banana leaf, with the shiny side next to the masa.
Place the tamales horizontally in a prepared steamer, using some of the banana leaves to line the pot. Cook for 1 hour; start counting when the water begins to boil. Turn the heat off and let rest for 15 minutes.
Makes 12 tamales.
Salsa Roja de Jitomate
3 1/3 pounds ripe tomatoes
1/2 medium white onion
4 garlic cloves, pressed
2 quarts water
1/2 white onion, chopped fine
2 chiles serranos, seeded and diced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Place tomatoes, onion and garlic in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes, then turn off heat. Remove the tomato, onion and garlic and cool, reserving the liquid.
Peel the tomatoes and cut them into large chunks. In a food processor add half the tomatoes, all onion and garlic, blend just until smooth. Add one cup of seasoned water. Repeat this process with the second half of the tomatoes. Heat a medium pan and add a little oil, the onion and serrano and cook for 2 minutes. Add sauce and salt and cook for 10 minutes or until nicely thickened. Serve warm on tamales.
Oaxaca Tamales in Banana Leaves
Adapted from “The Art of Mexican Cooking” by Diana Kennedy
Fresh corn masa
1 bunch banana leaves
2 pounds chicken breasts
6 garlic cloves
1 small white onion, roughly sliced
6 mint leaves
1 teaspoon salt
Simmer breasts until tender, about 30 minutes. Strain and reserve the broth, then cool and shred the chicken meat.
Black Oaxaca Mole
1/4 pound chiles guajillos
4 ounces chiles pasillas
1 pound tomatoes, broiled
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon fresh thyme and marjoram
2 tablespoons oregano
3/4 cup safflower oil
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup unsalted peanuts
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1 small onion, thickly sliced
12 small garlic cloves
1 cinnamon stick, broken
1 ripe plantain, skinned and cut into slices
3 thick slices of pan bolio or French bread
2-ounce tablet of Mexican chocolate
Remove stems and seeds from dried chiles and toast chiles for 1-2 minute on each side or until they become dark. Place the chiles in hot water and soak for at least 30 minutes. Place the broiled tomatoes in a blender and add broth, cloves, thyme, marjoram and oregano. Heat oil in a pan and fry the sesame seeds, peanuts and almonds until golden and add to the blender. Place raisins, chopped onion, garlic, cinnamon, plantain and bread in a pan with 1/4 cup oil and sauté for 10 minutes. Place in blender with enough broth to make a smooth purèe. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a heavy pan and add the blended mole mixture and cook for 15 minutes stirring it as it cooks. Place the soaked chiles in a blender with 2 cups chicken stock and blend until completely smooth. Add the chile mixture to the mole and place the chocolate in the sauce to melt. Cook over medium heat for 45 minutes. You may add up to 4 cups of chicken broth as it cooks down. The mole should cover the back of a wooden spoon. Add the shredded chicken and salt to taste and cook for 10 minutes.
Steam or boil the banana leaves until soft for folding. Cut them into 12-inch squares. Shred some of them across the width of the grain to make ties (you may have to tie several together).
Place a single banana leaf on your counter with the smooth side up. Put 3 tablespoons of the masa on the center of the leaf, spread it to almost cover the whole leaf, leaving only a 1-inch margin on all sides. In the center, put 3 to 4 tablespoons of chicken and black mole mixture. Fold the top edge of the banana leaf down and over the masa mixture, then bring the bottom edge up and over and fold in both sides to create a package and tie with the prepared ties. Arrange tamales in a prepared steamer and cook for 1 hour.
Makes 20 tamales.
Tamal Con Pollo en Pipian Verde
22 cornhusks, soaked in hot water for 1 hour
Masa (recipe follows)
3 pounds chicken breasts with bone in
1 head garlic unpeeled
1/2 large white onion
6 stalks fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 black peppercorns
3 allspice berries
1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 allspice berries
6 black peppercorns
1 pound fresh tomatillos
4 fresh serrano chiles
1/2 large white onion
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh
2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup canola oil
3 cups chicken stock
1 fresh poblano chile, roasted
Toast pumpkin seeds in a heavy skillet stirring continuously, until they start popping or 3-5 minutes. Place roasted seeds in a bowl to cool. Toast sesame seeds, cumin seeds, allspice, cloves and peppercorns for 1 minute, or until you get a nice aroma. When spices are cooled place them in a spice grinder.
Rinse chicken and cut garlic head in half. In a large kettle combine chicken, garlic, onion, cilantro, salt, peppercorns and allspice with water and simmer, covered for 50 minutes. Remove chicken and let it cool slightly before shredding it. Pour stock through a sieve. Set aside 3 cups of chicken stock for sauce. Shred or dice chicken and set aside.
Husk tomatillos and rinse in warm water. Stem seed and cut serranos. In a saucepan simmer tomatillos and serranos in salt water for 10 minutes. Place strained tomatillos and serranos in blender and puree with onion, garlic and 1/4 cup of cilantro until smooth.
Heat oil in large kettle and add tomatillo mixture, add 2 cups chicken stock and stir in powdered pumpkin seed mixture. Simmer sauce for 15 minutes.
Roast and peel poblano chile and remove seeds. Place chopped poblano in blender with remaining chicken stock and cilantro and blend until smooth. Add to pumpkin sauce. Add shredded chicken and heat.
Tear two cornhusks into 16 long strips for tying the tamales.
Spread 2 tablespoons masa in the center of each husk, spread it out to form a rectangle on the cornhusk, leaving 1 inch on all sides exposed. Place 2 tablespoons of chicken verde sauce in the center. Fold corn husk over filling and masa dough, beginning with right and left sides and ending with the nonpointed husk end. Tie the tamal “package” together with corn husk strips. Place tamales not touching each other in a steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam for 1 hour over medium-high heat, adding more water if needed.
Makes 20 tamales.
Masa For Savory Tamales
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups masa harina
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
3/4 cup vegetable stock
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon baking powder
Beat shortening with an electric mixer until fluffy. In a small bowl place masa harina, baking powder, cumin and salt and in a separate bowl mix the water and stock. With an electric mixer alternately beat in the masa harina and the stock mixture. Add just enough stock mixture to make a firm dough. Serve with warm Pipian verde sauce on each tamal.
Different methods of wrapping tamales are limited only by the imagination of the chefs. Corn husks are traditional, but dark green banana leaves make a striking presentation.
Here are some tips and a basic recipe for making perfect tamales:
> Prepare corn husks. Choose largest available and soak.
> Use a spatula to evenly spread masa over corn husk.
> Stop spreading about 1/4 inch from the sides and 1/2 inch from top and bottom edges.
> Spoon about two teaspoons of filling in a line through middle of masa.
> Spread masa thickly or thinly, depending on recipe and taste.
> Remember, masa will expand with steaming.
> Fold over one side of corn husk, allowing masa to drop off to cover filling.
> Fold free side of husk over top.
> Fold in top and bottom ends of husk.
> Place gently in steamer with folds down.
> 1 1/2 hours for most recipes.
> Place coin in water; it will rattle when steamer needs more water.
> Serve wrapped in corn husks.
> Tamales can be stored in a freezer up to four months.
Editor’s note: This is part of an article that folklorist “Big Jim” Griffith wrote April 14, 1997, for the University of Arizona Library’s Southwest Folklore Center, from which he now is retired. He is a research associate with UA’s Southwest Center. He says that perhaps the most important part of the tamal is its role in the family, where “generations of women get together each year to make tamales, visit, cement relationships, and catch up on family news.
Read the entire article, “Mexican Food in Tucson,” at http://parentseyes.arizona.edu/folkarts/tucfood.html
Tamales are a truly ancient food in Mexico – they were being made and eaten in great variety long before Columbus ever crossed the ocean blue and ran into places he didn’t know existed. Tamales, quite simply, are some sort of doughy mixture, usually based on corn, that have been wrapped in corn husks or leaves and steamed. They vary from one end of Mexico to the other. In the southern state of Oaxaca, for example, they’re wrapped in banana leaves; in coastal areas, they can be filled with seafood.
Here in Tucson, many tamales are filled with … you guessed it, beef. These are the tamales that are made in huge quantities in so many homes at Christmas time, and are often called “red tamales.” Shredded beef, cooked in red chile, with perhaps an olive added before they are wrapped in corn shucks. But there’s another kind of tamal that’s made at a completely different time of year. This is the green corn (read “fresh corn”) tamal, consisting of ground fresh white corn, with some cheese mixed into the masa, and perhaps a bit of green chile laid down the center. They are wrapped in the fresh shucks and steamed … and eaten. Don’t forget that last part – it’s the most fun of all.