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Salvadoran Tamale Mystery

There's a Salvadoran place name Planes de Renderos in San Francisco that makes great tamales. The masa is very creamy, almost gelatinous and I can't figure out how they do it. It's surely not pure masa harina. I tried using one part fine cornmeal (masa para arepas) to 3 parts masa harina, but that didn't work. Anybody know the secret? Maybe rice flour?

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  1. Occasionally I buy frozen tamales from El Salvador. These are slightly sweet, made with butter, and at least part sweet (or at least fresh) corn. They remind me of the Ecuadorian humitas, which are made with fresh field corn. Some recipes approximate that with a mix of pureed American sweet corn and cornmeal.

    paulj

    1. I know that Guatemalans have a tamale in which the masa is strained (Yucatecans, too) maybe that is the secret?
      I asked my friend and she said: "we take regular corn tortilla masa and we usually strain to make it more fine then we mix the masa with lard and water and cook it till it gets more gel-like in texture".

      5 Replies
      1. re: WildSwede

        Interesting. You mean just pass the dry masa through a fine sieve first, then mix the dough as usual? Didn't think it could be that simple, but I'll give it a try.

        1. re: Zeldog

          Isn't there a finer masa harina that is intended for tortillas, and a coarser one for Mexican tamales?

          1. re: paulj

            I don't know on both counts. Unfortunately my friend who told me that left for vacation a few hours ago. I will check with my Yucetecan friend, tho, since they have a version that is strained. I will get back with you tomorrow. Dommy may chime in here as she would also know.

        2. re: WildSwede

          I think you are right on the money wildswede. They are known as colados. I think the masa is also pre cooked before the steaming and called masa cocida.
          I think it is the combo betw. the straining and the pre cooking that gives you that wonderful jelly like texture that I find amazing.
          Guat are similar too.

          1. re: kare_raisu

            I concur.... Yucatecan, Chiapanecan, Oaxacan Isthmus, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan... are all styles of the same basic, strained masa tamales which gives them that gelatinous characteristc... although Salvadorans are usually the most custard like because they also add Rice flour to the masa.

            You have to be careful... because when they aren't done right (as my most recent Chicken tamal from my local Pupuseria turned out)... they turn out a disgusting Cream of Chicken mushy like texture.

        3. Could they have been tamales de elote? Were they wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves?

          6 Replies
          1. re: morebubbles

            Banana leaves. The filling was chicken with onions, chiles and olives. All in all they are very similar to Colombian tamales, except for the texture.

            1. re: Zeldog

              I think those are the Guatemalan types (at least that is what I had at Christmas). The ones I had also had capers. Were there bones in yours?

              1. re: Zeldog

                Well, I'll tell you what I know from watching my grandma & other Salvadoran ladies. Masa harina is cooked in a large kettle mixed with homemade chicken stock and oil (instead of lard). The masa is then cooked/stirred until quite thick and is difficult to stir. Take out some of that cooked masa, add 'recaudo' (a sauce consisting of a mix of freshly toasted and ground seeds, spices, peppers etc) to it and put aside. Then assemble the tamales, first the cooked plain masa, then putting a bit of the masa with sauce in the middle, then in that whatever filling the cook wants to put in (could be any combination: chicken, pork, olives, capers, etc).
                In summary, I think the texture comes from that pre-cooking and the streneous stirring stage. And maybe the right amount of stock and oil to the masa.

                1. re: morebubbles

                  Thanks morebubbles and others. I do believe precooking will do the trick. .

                  1. re: Zeldog

                    Don't forget to strain, otherwise it wont work as you intend.

            2. One thing... I really don't believe its anything about finer masa... the reason it is strained is to remove the fiber... and grinding finer doesn't really accomplish this.

              1. Ok, I did a quick test. I cooked up 2 cups of masa para tamales, stirring pretty much constantly for about 10-15 minutes after it came to a boil. I started with too little water, so I added boiling water from a tea kettle to keep it thin enough to stir. Then I made some simple tamales (just some cooked masa wrapped in parchment) and steamed them. Success!

                I didn't strain the masa, so it wasn't quite as smooth as the Planes de Renderos tamales, but I actually liked it better that way (kinda reminded me of slightly overcooked grits). Even ate most of the leftover masa as porridge before it set up. Thanks again, all.

                1. I have another Salvadorian Tamale Mystery that I cannot solve. 20 years ago a Salvadorian family who were friends made a sweet tamale dough filled with chicken, potato, raisons or prune, red sauce (bell pepper, onion, garlic & tomato blended w/typical salvadorian spices of pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, etc). I cannot find anyone to give me the recipe - the how to's. The Salvadorians say they don't eat the dough sweet yet this family sweetened their masa. Anyone, please help me with this recipe. I am going to El Salvador to find that recipe because it was so delicious. Thanks for your help here.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: SweetLorraine

                    I've only had sweet Oaxacan tamale year ago during my first visit to Chicago's colorful Maxwell street market. It was even a festive red color.

                    Maybe googling that will help you find something thatc could at least get you started before going all the way to El Salvador. lhttp://www.gourmetsleuth.com/pumpkintamales.htm

                    1. re: SweetLorraine

                      There is a sweet tamal. Sugar is added to the masa and it's filled with meat,raisins, prunes etc. From what I've seen, the last of the dough, say, enough to make 15 tamales, is sweetened (people I know make huge batches, 100 or more tamales), filled and wrapped, ready to steam (an identifier, could be double wrapped or something similar is placed on these sweet tamales in order to tell them apart later).
                      You could still go to El Salvador to check out tamales and other foods, such as pupusas for instance. I love watching those being made so quickly & expertly (check this pupusa making video if you want: http://youtube.com/watch?v=kiB63cIs_I8 )

                      1. re: SweetLorraine

                        i know exactly the tamales you are talking about- what it is is that certain salvadorians from different places make it and others don't - remember el salvador is a big country!
                        my mother makes them for me and they are great!!!! i luv them! my family is from san miguel, it is a matter of adding sugar to the masa when cookin and holding back on the salt, per my mom

                        1. re: a378426

                          El Salvador is not a big country. It is the smallest country on the American mainland.

                        2. re: SweetLorraine

                          The real campesinos take ripe corn and machete a line to then peel off the husks. Then, use a knife/machete to cut the kernels off the cob. Grind the kernels or liquefy them in a blender. Pass through a sieve to remove excess water. Mix in some butter/margarine and sugar, to your liking. Wrap in the corn husks (2 per tamal), these kind of tamales aren't tide. Set the tamales in a big pot and steam until cooked.

                          Usually these "tamales de elote" (sweet corn tamales) are made in August when corn is ripe. The other chicken/pork salavadoran tamales are made with corn that has dried on the stalks and is later boiled and mixed with chicken powder, and other flavors.

                          Hope that helps!

                          Tara y Noe

                           
                           
                           
                           
                        3. Update. Just after the excellent replies here solved the masa cocida mystery I came across Tamales 101 by Alice Guadalupe Tapp. The book has sweet and savory tamale recipes from all over Latin America, including several using masa cocida (she doesn't strain the masa or add rice flour). Even has a recipe for Puerto Rican pasteles using mashed plantains. Nice little book if you can find it.

                          1. It is simply masa harina. It must be mixed with water and brought to a slow boil. It will be very hard to stir, but must be stirred continuously. I use a heavy wooden spoon. After it comes to a slow boil, place the masa mixture into the holders (banana leaves or corn leaves) with whatever meat filling you want. Put into large pot with water in bottom to steam for 1 hour. This further "molds" and steams the masa and creates the "gelatinous" texture you describe.

                            1. The real campesinos take ripe corn and machete a line to then peel off the husks. Then, use a knife/machete to cut the kernels off the cob. Grind the kernels or liquefy them in a blender. Pass through a sieve to remove excess water. Mix in some butter/margarine and sugar, to your liking. Wrap in the corn husks (2 per tamal), these kind of tamales aren't tide. Set the tamales in a big pot and steam until cooked.

                              Usually these "tamales de elote" (sweet corn tamales) are made in August when corn is ripe. The other chicken/pork salavadoran tamales are made with corn that has dried on the stalks and is later boiled and mixed with chicken powder, and other flavors.

                              Hope that helps!

                              Tara y Noe