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La Tamalada Mexican women share holiday tamale making tradition

02 | 04 | 2008

TamalesTamales, for many Latino families, are the quintessential celebration food particularly beloved around the holidays. By the way, did you know that tamal is the Mexican "singular" use of the word?

Mexican women traditionally gather in the kitchen during the holidays to make dozens and even hundreds of tamales to be shared with family and friends during all important holidays. A tamalada is a custom passed on by each generation, and you’ll see multi-generational parties of women cooking tamales and passing on their special recipes and tips to granddaughters and great granddaughters.

The tamalada is more than a cooking session—it is a family reunion, a party in itself, a chance for the kids to play and the adults to catch up on all the news about the aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends. It’s the warm-up session for the family celebrations to come.

As one Mexican friend put it, “Growing up, I can remember the Hispanic women in the community gathering in the fall to make tamales. Tamale making was a social event…a time to renew old friendships and make new ones. Often young women would return home to make tamales with their mother.”

The “proper way” for a tamalada to be conducted is often adhered to with passion. The principal character, often a great-aunt or a mama or grandma, not only took charge of ingredients but also dictated exactly who played each part in the tamalada. These rituals could even include the crushed ice thrown into the masa at the last minute, the prayer that the grandmother would whisper to the tamales before they steamed, and the Spanish guitar music that had to play on the record player while the tamales were steaming! If you didn't do what was required, the tamales were supposed to turn out badly.

And, as all of this happens, each of the women share memories of making tamales and tries to remember the tips from elders about each step.

The basic ingredients of traditional tamales are meat, chiles and the corn "masa," or dough, which encases the filling inside the corn husk. The filling can be of any kind: chicken, turkey, pork, venison or vegetables, pineapple, pumpkin…almost anything can be made into a tamal!

In the old days the masa was traditionally made at home, but we understand even some experts now use the packaged variety, which can be purchased in large tubs at Mexican grocery stores.

Flour to make TamalesSince these days, everyone pitches in, a tamalada is also similar to an assembly line.

According to one lady, whose family doesn’t consider it a holiday without the traditional tamalada, everyone in the family has their own special job:

You need the following people to have a successful tamal assembly line: A husk soaker and tamale steamer, a masa maker, a masa spreader, a tamale filler and roller. 

Here is how my family does it every Christmas: 

Mom is the hoja (husk) soaker and steamer. She fills the sink with hot water and soaks the hojas until they are pliable. She drains them and keeps the spreaders supplied. 

My two brothers fancy themselves champion masa spreaders. They take the pliable leaves and spread a thin, even layer of masa two inches from the bottom of the hoja (the narrow part) to the top of the hoja (the wide part). This is then passed to the filler. 

My sister-in-law and father fill and roll the tamales. They spread the filling down the middle of the masa layer and fold in both sides of the hoja around the filling. This part is important, otherwise you end up with filling that has no masa around it. After folding the sides, you need to fold up the end (narrow part) and you realize why no masa was spread there. From here it goes back to Mom…the soaker/steamer. 

The tamales steam for 35-45 minutes or until you can take one out, tug gently on the hoja, and the masa separate easily from the corn husk, leaving a delicious tamale inside. 


Is your mouth watering yet? 

The beverage that’s most typically served with tamales is atole or champurrado, a warm, comforting drink made from corn masa, sugar, milk (or water) and flavorings (my favorite is Mexican chocolate). Beer offers a completely different perspective, though one that many (including myself) love with red-chile pork tamales. And, keep in mind that few will turn down a well-made margarita. A friend’s husband, however, insists you cannot eat a homemade tamale without a Pepsi! Personally, I don’t care what I drink it with it, there’s just nothing quite like a just-out-of-the-steamer tamale.

Most people are intimidated by making tamales, but there is no need to be. The key thing is plan things out. You need to make sure that you have all ingredients and equipment before you start. First, you need to gather up the ingredients, and equipment. Second, you will need to cook the meat that serves as the heart of the hot tamale. Then you need to assemble the tamales. I think it’s a great idea to have a party where you choose people and play to their strengths. I think my husband, Bill, would make a great masa spreader. He’s the most patient man I know!

And there are plenty of web sites that will give you step-by-step directions AND pictures to show you what each step of the process should look like. The one thing to remember is once you start, you want to make a big batch…they freeze easily, or you can share them with friends and family over the holidays. What a great house-party gift that would be. You’ll be certain to be asked back!


Tamal Tips 

  • For moist flavorful tamales, don't skimp on the sauces or salsas -- if you are using a meat or tofu filling with a sauce, shoot for about a 2 to 1 ration of sauce to filling.
  • Mix and match your favorites meats, vegetables, seafood and sauces -- almost anything encased in masa dough and wrapped in corn husks can be a tamale.
  • Make sure to completely enclose your sauces and fillings in the masa dough before wrapping the tamale, otherwise the filling can leak, which will cause the finished tamale to be dry.
  • When buying fresh masa, be sure to carefully check the label as sometimes the dough is already mixed for you (usually with lard). Since you will probably want to mix your own dough with healthier ingredients, avoid buying "prepared masa."
  • Some Latin markets will offer two types of fresh masa: fino and quebrado. When offered a choice, pick the more finely ground fino for tamale making.
  • Do not confuse masa flour with cornmeal— they are made from different types of corn and you will not achieve the same results in your tamales if you use cornmeal.
  • If a corn husk rips or one is too small, overlap two together and continue wrapping and tying as usual.
  • Don't overstuff your tamales or they will leak out of the wrappers. Use less masa than you think you need, at least until you get the hang of it.
  • Where you place the filling on the husk will depend on the wrapping style you choose, however, no matter how you tie them, the masa should always be spread on the smooth side of the corn husk.
  • Have a tamale making party and divide up the duties -- assign different participants different fillings and sauces to bring to the party -- everybody shares in assembling and eating!


Tamal History 

Tamales can be traced back as early as 5000 BC. They were served as a nutritious and portable food for Aztec, Mayan, and Incan warriors. It is understood that the Aztecs greeted their incoming conquerors with the tightly wrapped festival food. Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent celebrate by sharing this tradition of generosity and good will by making and then giving out tamales as gifts.

The tamale is 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 Incan cultures grew, the demand of readying the nixtamal (corn) itself became so overwhelming a process, a need arose to have a more portable sustaining foodstuff. This requirement demanded the creativity of the women…..hence the tamale was born.

The tamales could be made ahead 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. We have no record of which culture actually created the tamale but believe that one started and the others soon followed.

The tamale caught on very fast and eventually grew in variety and diversity unknown in today’s 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. Well, you get the idea.

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 were cornhusks, 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.

Over the millennia, the varieties were minimized to the most common now being red and greed chile, chicken, pork, beef, sweet, chile, cheese, and of late, vegetables. Also changed was the every day occurrence of making the tamales. With the preparation being so labor- and time-intensive, 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. The process takes all day, the preparation often starting one of two days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales. 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, savored and loved by all.

Tamales have always been loved by the Hispanic people and in the 1900s 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.



As with most Mexican foods each region of Mexico has it's own specialties.  Specialty versions abound but here are examples of some of the variations listed by region.

Culiacan, Sinaloa - Everyday varieties include tamals made of small, sweet brown beans, pineapple and corn.   Special occasion versions are large and made with both meat and vegetables.   

Veracruz - Tamales made of fresh corn and pork seasoned with hoja santa.  Other styles include banana-leaf wrapped masa with chicken and hoja santa.

Oaxaca - Large tamales wrapped in banana leaves spiced with their regional specialty "black mole".  They also do a corn husk variety with other moles including green or yellow with small black beans and chepil (a herb).

Monterrey - This region prefers a small tamal that uses both smooth or coarse dough which includes shredded meat and red chilies.

Yucatan - Achiote is a favored seasoning.  Many tamales from this region are quite large and cooked either in a pit or baked in the oven.  The dough is made of smooth-ground masa and fillings include chicken and pork, or a combination.  Another version is called the vaporcitos, a simple thin layer of masa on a banana leaf, steamed.  Tamales colads, a thin dough with fillings of chicken, tomato and achiote.

San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas -  A banana leaf wrapped version called tamales untados, filled with pork and a mole.  

Michoacan - Specialties include corundas wrapped in fresh corn leaves and unfilled. 

North Western Mexico - Both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless write of the huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles made with very coarsely ground masa with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves.  These monstrous tamales are baked in wood heated ovens in specialty restaurants, normally on weekends.

And, last but not least, here are some favorite recipes.


Beef Tamales
Beef shoulder roast is simmered with garlic, onions, ancho, pasilla, and New Mexico chiles.

Yield: 25 tamales

I n g r e d i e n t s
2 pounds beef shoulder roast
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 onions, peeled and sliced
1 garlic bulb, cloves removed and peeled
4 ounces dried New Mexico chilies
2 ounces ancho chiles
2 ounces pasilla chiles
2 tablespoons cumin seed, toasted
1 tablespoons salt
2 bags dried corn husks, about 3 dozen
4 cups masa mix for tamales
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups reserved beef broth, warm
1 cup vegetable shortening


D i r e c t i o n s
Beef; Season the beef shoulder all over with salt and pepper then brown in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Once browned on all sides, add enough water to cover the roast along with the 1 sliced onion and about 6 cloves of garlic.

Cook until the meat is fork tender and comes apart with no resistance, about 2 hours. When done, remove the roast to a platter to cool, reserve the beef broth. Hand shred the meat and set aside.

Sauce; To prepare the sauce, remove the tops of the dried chilies and shake out most of the seeds. Place the chilies in a large stockpot and cover them with water. Add the cumin, remaining sliced onion and garlic. Boil for 20 minutes until the chiles are very soft. Transfer the chiles to a blender using tongs and add a ladle full of the chile water (it is best to do this in batches.) Puree the chiles until smooth. Pass the pureed chiles through a strainer to remove the remaining seeds and skins. Pour the chili sauce into a large bowl and add salt, stir to incorporate. Taste to check seasonings, add more if necessary. Add the shredded beef to the bowl of chili sauce, and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Husks; go through the husks and sort by size and remove any silks or debris. Soak the corn husks in your sink filled with warm water until soft, about 30 minutes. (You can also soak husks in large bowls of water if you are not doing a lot of tamales).

Masa; In a deep bowl, combine the masa, baking powder, and salt. Pour the broth into the masa a little at a time, working it in with your fingers. In a small bowl, beat the vegetable shortening until fluffy. Add it to the masa and beat until the dough has a spongy texture.

Drain Husks; Rinse, drain, and dry the corn husks. Set them out on a sheet pan covered by a damp towel along with the bowls of masa dough and beef in chili sauce.

Spread Masa; Start with the largest husks because they are easier to roll. Lay the husk flat on a plate or in your hand with the smooth side up and the narrow end facing you. Spread a thin, even layer of masa over the surface of the husk with a tablespoon dipped in water. The easiest method of spreading masa is with a masa spreader (see side panel for how this is used) Do not use too much, keep the masa thin. 

Add about a tablespoon of the meat filling in the center of the masa. Fold the narrow end up to the center then fold both sides together to enclose the filling. The sticky masa will form a seal. Pinch the wide top closed.

Fold; the sides of the corn husk to center over the masa so that they overlap to make a long package. Fold the empty part of the husk under so that it rest against the side of the tamale with a seam.

Steam; Place the tamales in a steamer and cook tamales for 2 hours. Check every 20 minutes.  Do not let the water boil away. The tamale is cooked when it separates easily from the corn husk.

Serve; Unfold the husk and spoon about a tablespoon of remaing beef filling on top.


Pumpkin Tamales
This is a simple recipe for sweet pumpkin tamales. Sweet tamales are not served as a dessert in Mexico but along with savory tamales or other savory dishes.

Makes: 3 - 4 dozen tamales

I n g r e d i e n t s
12 - 15 cups of basic fresh masa OR masa made from Maseca corn flour

1- 1lb 10 oz can pumpkin puree
2 cups sugar or use less to taste
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon)

1 tablespoon ground mace
2 cups raisins, dark or golden
36 to 48 dried corn husks, soaked, washed, and drained plus more for ties.

D i r e c t i o n s
Prepare the masa.

In a large bowl combine the masa, pumpkin and sugar. Add the vanilla, mace, cinnamon, and raisins and mix until well blended.

To assemble the tamales, place 2 - 3 heaping tablespoons of the masa mixture in the net of the smooth side of the corn husk.. fold the sides of the husk in toward the center and tie the tamale at both ends (see picture).
Prick the husk several times using the tip of a very sharp knife. Repeat for the remaining tamales. Steam the tamales for 45 - 50 minutes.

Serve with a dollop of crema.


Jesus's 30 Minute Chicken Tamales

Yield: 25 tamales

I n g r e d i e n t s
6 cups Maseca Corn Masa mix for tamales
6 cups Chicken broth
1 cup corn or other vegetable oil (corn will enhance the flavor)
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 large rotisserie chicken
2 1/2 12 oz jars green tomatillo sauce
1 bag corn husHYPERLINK "pdetail.asp?p=148"ks

D i r e c t i o n s
Soak; the corn husks in warm water until soft.

Blend; Using an electric mixer, blend the masa flour (Maseca for Tamales), corn oil, salt, baking powder and the chicken broth to obtain a consistent mixture.

Shred; the chicken and marinate in the green salsa or tomatillo sauce.

Spread; masa evenly over corn husks, and spread a spoonful of marinated chicken on top of the masa.

Fold; the sides of the corn husk to center over the masa so that they overlap to make along package.Fold the empty part of the husk under so that it rest against the side of the tamale with a seam.

Place the tamales in a steamer and cook tamales for 35-40 minutes. Check every 20 minutes.The tamale is cooked when it separates easily from the corn husk.


Tamal Spreader Instructions
It may seems hard to use the tamale masa spreader gadget for spreading masa. But after struggling with a spoon using this tool will make things go a little easier:

Pick up cup of masa
Pick up ½ cup of masa dough with front of spreader.

Place on husk
Place on husk and press to the angle of the spreader

Slide towards the bottom of the husk
Slide towards the bottom of the husk until the entire husk is covered.

  • The spreader works best with soft, warm, masa
  • Use the large smooth surface to spread.
  • For thicker masa use more masa and less pressure.


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