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Jun 13, 2008 12:46 PM

Tamales. what are they, what should be in them and what should they taste like

how do you make them and how many varieties are there. I had one yesterday that was made in a banana leaf, quite good with a chunk of pork in it, how about using chicken and more of a west indies flavor, maybe any suggestions on how to make it. It made me very satified and full all day but it seemed like it was 1,000,000 calories. HELP!! Any recipes will make me happy, thanks and variety would be great.

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  1. Tamales vary pretty greatly by region. Most are made with masa (typically corn soaked in lime and then ground, mixed with lard) and fillings can range from different meats such as pork/beef/chicken to cheese/peppers to sweet corn. Some are wrapped with corn husks, others with banana leaves.

    Hopefully others will post their recipes!

    1. As danab said, tamales are regional and country-specific. Wrapped in a banana leaf I would guess you had a Central American tamale. Mexican tamales are more likely to be wrapped in corn husks ... but even that depends on the part of the country.

      There are also sweet tamales ... strawberry, pineapple and raisin being the most common. These are usually not filled, but the fruit flavors the masa.

      Here's a Chow recipe for an different take on sweet tamales
      Dixon Apple Pie Tamales

      I posted about this book which is a good beginners guide and also has recipes for the many different variations.
      Tamales 101: A Beginner's Guide to Making Traditional Tamales

      The author of that book uses vegetable oil rather than lard, but explains how to substitute lard and other oils in the receipes.

      Some tamales, like Guatamalan, which are amoung my favorite,will be wrapped around a whole part of meat ... like a whole chicken leg. There is one tamal, I forget which country, that is wrapped around a whole chicken or pig.

      Here's some previous tamale recipes and hints on Chowhound

      1. Use a search function. You will find as many recipes that you will ever be able to handle by using the web. I do commend you on being up to the challenge of making them. You will be WELL rewarded, trust me.

        some tips for you:
        Tamales are fully adaptable to your needs within reason. Just because you had one with pork in it does not mean that they can only be made with pork. I make mine regularly with chicken. The tamalerias in my town make them in all kinds of ways. I can get sweet chocolate ones to crabmeat tamales if I want to. This would go for other recipes in general. I don't think anybody who enjoys cooking would say to themselves "Since I had a food, and it contained one meat, therefore that food can only be made with that one meat" - this just does not make any sense to me whatsoever. Of course, you have to use common sense. Something like "Chicken curry cheesecake topped with cherries with an oreo cookie crust is just stupid.

        with tamales, your main issue with the filling is gonna be moisture. Can't have it too soggy. Chocolate chips, bars would be fine (I've done it before plenty of times, but something like chocolate pudding would NOT work - too soggy. You will DEFINITELY understand this when you make a batch. They are steamed.

        Another tip: If you have Mexican market, they will probably have tubs of pre-made masa (tamale dough) available in the refridge section. I live in a pretty big city, and even most of the mainstream giant grocery chains sell these. Maybe you wanna try it?
        Personally, I think they are a waste of $, but some people like them. Generally too salty for me. Your mexican grocer will also have flour sized bags of dried masa so you can make your own dough. Again, there are endless recipes on the web. They will all consist of creamed fat (lard or butter, or crisco, or a combination of any) + broth, salt, and baking powder. I also always fortify with chile powder (ground chile pepper, NOT american chili powder) and garlic/ onion powders. The premade tubs of dough I have had are also far too dense which brings me to the next tip:

        Whatever fat you use for your tamales, make sure you cream it enough. Simple test is if a small spoonful (say a tsp) of your final dough floats in a glass of cold water, you have creamed your fat / beaten your dough enough. If it does not float, you need to keep beating it. There is a HUGE difference in the dough of the final product if it is not beaten enough. Again, once you start making them, you will fully understand.

        It's usually an all day affair. Most people I know make the filling (if it's meat) one day, let it cool in the fridge, and then make the dough and form/steam the tamales the next day.

        Here's a link to a place I go when I want fancy tamales, just to give you a general idea of things to put in them:
        For the most part, they are usually filled with pork in a red sauce, pork in a green sauce, chicken in red or green sauce. Another popular filing is re fried beans and a sauce (red or green). Also, I see a lot of hard cheese with roasted peppers (poblano or jalapeno.) There was a recent thread about this thiat will offer more tips. Good luck! Don't let any of the recipes discourage you. yes they take time to make, BUT they are not HARD to make, and the time spent is so worth the reward. I guarantee it. and after you make your second batch,you can start delegating responsibilities to other people!

        Other thread:

        4 Replies
        1. re: gordeaux

          Funny ... despite living in California with a large Mexican population ... I saw my first refried bean tamale recently ... ahogado ... or with sauce ... (ahogado means 'drowned) Will have to try it soon.

          Here's an article from the SF Chronicle where Diane Kennedy mentions "there are at least 350 known types of tamales in all kinds of wrappers, from fresh corn husks to banana leaves."

          There is also a recipe and some tips for making tamales by Kennedy like ...

          "placing pennies in the boiling water; as long as the coins continue to rattle, the water is boiling properly and there is still plenty of it in the pot. "

          I always see tamales with dried corn husks, but saw a recipe recently using fresh, green corn husks. It was a recipe for corn tamales made when corn is at its peak in the summer that uses the fresh kernels cut from the cob mixed into the masa and then the fresh husks wraps the filling.

          1. re: rworange

            I tried the penny trick and it didn't work. I kept adding water, thinking it was running dry and I eventually had too much. I think it best to manually check from time to time.

            I made tamales for the first time a month ago. They were amazing. I used Maseca masa flour and rendered fat from the pork butt. Like gordeaux says, do not under beat! I used the drop of batter the size of a raspberry in cold water trick and it worked well.

            My favourite was the pork and salsa roja tamale. I think if I made chicken again, I would barbecue the chicken for more flavour. And just pull the meat off the bones.

            Good luck. I was afraid to try but everyone here encouraged me and I'm glad I did it. I'll be making more again soon.

            1. re: sarah galvin

              I always use the penny trick. It's just not woth risking running out of water (happened to me a few times. ruins the tamals.) I'm not sure how it would not work? Unless your steamer was not at a rolling boil? I have one that has a very tight seal, and the water doesn't really roll. Maybe that's it?

              1. re: gordeaux

                Maybe, I'll try it one more time. Thanks.

        2. Once you've mastered the American tamales, you can branch out into the Chinese varieties, aka zongzi. I'm having a pork one for dinner tonight, from a friend's mother. Years ago, my Chinese landlady called to see if I was home because she wanted to bring me a tamale. Krys, I was truly puzzled why my landlady wanted to give me lobster liver.

          1. In addition to all this great advice, I would not try to make tamales on my own. Not hard, but lots of steps, many of them tedious, and it is silly to make only a few. Around Christmas, I get together with several friends to make tamales. We gather late morning, each bringing a filling they made the day before. The host provides coffee/tea/sweet breads for the morning. We all work together to assemble the tamales, catching up, giggling (kind of like a slumber party). Once the first batch comes out of the steamer, we are usually ready for lunch (we have to try them, after all). At the end of the day we divide up all the tamales for each to have enough for the freezer. Yum! Many hands make light work.