My Experience With Tamales
Before I started to do this project I wanted to know the history and background of the tamale. I found that the tamale was recorded as early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. Initially, women were taken along in battle as army cooks to make the masa for the tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures grew, the demand of readying the nixtamal (corn) itself became very overwhelming process. A need arose to have a more portable sustaining source of food.
Tamales could be pre-made ahead of time and packed, to be warmed as needed. They were steamed, grilled on the comal (grill) over the fire, or put directly on top of the coals to warm, or they were eaten cold. While searching the web I found no record of which culture actually created the tamale but believe that the snowball effect where one tribe or culture started and the others soon followed after and so on and so on.
The tamale caught on very fast and eventually grew in variety and diversity unknown in todays culture. There were plain tamales, tamales with red, green, yellow and black chile, tamales with chocolate, fish tamales, frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. There were white and red fruit tamales, white tamales, yellow tamales, dried meat tamales, roasted meat, stewed meat, bean and rice tamales. There were sweet sugar, pineapple, raisin, cinnamon, berry, banana and pumpkin tamales. There were hard and soft cheese tamales, roasted quail tamales, ant, potato, goat, wild boar, lamb and tomato tamales. Of course you get the idea, theres a lot of varieties and inventive ways of preparing and making tamales.
The sizes, colors and shapes varied almost as much as the fillings. They were steamed, oven-roasted, fire-roasted, toasted, grilled, barbecued, fried and boiled. The wrappings are made of corn husks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark, and other edible, non-toxic leaves. The most commonly used were corn husks, banana and avocado leaves. I also found that many other cultures have their own version of the tamale such as Nicaragua where they call their tamales nacatamal, Guatemala calls theirs paches or chuchitos, Bolivia and Ecuador call theirs humita, Veracruz calls it zacahull and Venezuela call their tamales hallaca.As you can see the tamale is very well known across sea to shining sea.
Over the millennium, the varieties were minimized to the most common now being red and green chile, chicken, pork, beef, sweet, cheese, and of late, vegetables. Also changed was the every day occurrence of making the tamales. With the preparation taking so much labor and time consuming, tamales became holiday fare, made for special occasions. This tradition remained for thousands of years, with the women of the family working together to make the sauces and meats, preparing the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. This process takes all day, the preparation often starting one of two days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales, I found that out the hard working way. In most cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time. Everyone, young, old, family and friends, is invited to tamale feasts where they are enjoyed by all. They have become known and loved by all cultures as much as sushi and dim-sum, which were, in the past, also holiday and celebration foods.
Now that I did my background information and history of the tamale I was ready to dig-in and give tamales a shot. I was ready to work like the hard working women back in the past, hopefully I made them proud for my first time! The first thing we prepared was the Molina. We used chicken in our Molina where we cooked it in a pot of water for a couple of hours – until the meat is so tender it almost falls apart. I found in tamale making that the dried chiles really have a special place within the tamale. Dried chiles where soaked in a flavored broth, which is then used to moisten the tamale dough. The meat was shredded and seasoned with dried, red “pequin” chili peppers, garlic, and other spices to make the filling that we rolled inside the tamales the next day. We did not throw away the broth from the chicken it was set aside to use in mixing the masa dough the next day.
The following day, was tamale-making day. We heated the Molina in the crock pot so that it would stay nice and warm. Then we proceeded by making the masa dough. We placed the corn flour in a large bowl and added the extra chicken broth from the day before. We then mixed the dough with our hands until the dough was smooth. We use a little more broth because we didnt want the mixture loose. Then we beat the lard in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed about three minutes, until it was fluffy. I also read that Lard, rather than vegetable shortening, is the time-honored ingredient for making the best tamales. A page on the web also explained to me that, Tamale specialists who have been making tamales say that the prepared dough will be light, fluffy and most flavorful only when lard is used. Oringinally we where going to use shortening but the web sight said, If you do so, remember that flavor and texture will be altered.. So when doing homework before making tamales we all thought that it would be more authentic if we used what they used back in the day, which was lard. Then the masa dough mixture was added, a handful at a time. When we where done, the mixture was very light and delicate, the texture was kind of like a frosting mix, it felt funny like runny play dough.
Earlier we had placed the dried corn husks in a large bowl and covered it with boiling water. Then we let it soak for thirty minutes to one hour. We dried them slightly with paper towels before using. I read they should not be wet when you spread the dough on them because the masa would not take well to the corn husk. We then proceeded and drained and selected as many of the larger pieces of corn husks we could find. We found that the smaller pieces where hard to fill with masa and the filling ended oozing out of the corn husk, which made it a very had situation when the masa that we had used already had red Molina filling on it. So we went back to the drawing board and made another batch of masa and of course continued to get our hands working and make more tamales.
Then the mess began, we started by spreading the dough mixture across the husk, covering it from side to side and extending it about halfway up toward the narrow tip. We filled the middle with our Molina which consisted of chicken, which we placed about one heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of the mixture. Then folded the left third over to the center and then folded the right side over it, then folded up the narrow end even with the wide end so the tamale is folded roughly in half crosswise (helpfully tips from one of the guys). We just placed the tamales on a plate until they where ready to steam. As the girls where making them by hand, one of the gentlemen had brought in a masa smasher (please forgive me, I cant remember the name right now) as I called it. It flattened out the masa in a perfect circle, it was kind of tricky because it was sticking to the gadget. But when he got it out of there, he just placed it right in a large corn husk, put the Molina, folded it like a blanket and boom, he was done. I thing he made more me, but not as many as me and young ladies did. That was the time I started getting hungry, I couldnt wait, till it was done!
After the grewling task of wrapping, and boy was that work, we arranged the tamales in the steamer, open ends facing up. Then we poured boiling water into the bottom of the steamer to a depth of at least 1 inch, covered it tightly and brought it quickly to a full boil. Cook for about one to two hours and of course waited patiently.
While the tamales where cooking (pardon me Im so bad with names in my group), we decided to make a full meal out of it, forget thanksgiving we had all the fine trimmings. One of the guys had brought over some bubble rice. Im not to sure what kind of rice it was but they looked like little bubbles, I think Spanish rice, or something? So he proceeded to cook that with a special broth he had made. It had sliced tomatoes, some onions, garlic, chicken broth cube, and some water in it. So as soon as the rice started turning brown and had a burnt smell, he then took the broth mix and stirred it into the rice. We let that sit and simmer for a while, while the tamales where still a cooking. By the time the rice was done cooking and absorbing all the broth it had smelled so good, and tasted so delicious. FINALLY! The the tamales where done (After about one and a half to two hours), everything was smelling so good. Everybodys tummies where crying out for justice! So we did as anyone would do in our situation. We prepared the table, put everything in its place and we torn those tamales up! If it was up to me, I would of just preferred the Molina with chips (which we did with what was left in the pot) but I could see where they wrapped it in the masa and made them in corn husk, because if their was leftovers you could easily store them and save them just in case you where hungry or what not. And of course we wrapped some in foil and had them to-go!