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What's the deal with tamales?

At the risk of sounding ignorant, what's so difficult about making home made tamales? Friends and coworkers (all Mexican) laugh when I say that I am going to make my own tamales. They make it out to be the most difficult food ever. I know my way around a kitchen, so really how hard can it be?

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  1. Not that difficult, but time consuming. Please let everyone know how difficult it was and they turned out after you make a batch. Merry Christmas.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      Sam, I was with friends yesterday and cooked a completely inauthentic but fun version of curried chicken dinner as reinterpreted by the Brits. His mother was visiting. She is Colombian. I told her that if I had had the nerve, I would have made tamales for lunch, Oaxacan style, but I felt intimidated by them and didn't have time to shop for the ingredients I wanted. She said she "adored" tamales, but the way they are made in Colombia. What's the difference?

      1. re: Father Kitchen

        FK, always good to hear from you!

        Colombian tamales are quite large (one per person is a meal), wrapped in numerous layers of banana leaf, use arepa flour for the masa and include hard egg, peas, maybe pork, but more often chicken, carrot, and other odds and ends. No spicy heat and quite oily, even after steaming.

        Although I live in Colombia (16 years!), I bring back corn husks and Maseca to make my Mexican style tamales.

        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          I had some tamales for lunch yesterday at a Mexican restaurant in York, PA. They were norteno style: nice masa but it the sauce was a generic enchilada sauce and the shredded chicken tasted washed out. I can do better than that. Then this morning Filippino friends from Canada phoned and told me how much they loved tamales and were disappointed in the Mexican variety. So I went on line and discovered another version with rice and peanuts and achiote and sliced hard boiled egs and pork and chorizo de Bilbao and shrimp and coconut milk and brown sugar (?!) steamed in coconut leaves. They are large, like the Colombian version you describe. Mmm, I wonder what Guam, on the same trade route, has to offer.

          1. re: Father Kitchen

            A tamle with rice, peanuts, and pork? Sounds like a Chinese jung or jeng to me! But instead of being wrapped in coconut leaves they are wrapped in bamboo leaves.

            1. re: KTinNYC

              Phooey, one of my replies disappeared, so I thought there was a glitch. So I rewrote it and added the Guam part. So you get it twice. Sorry.

            2. re: Father Kitchen

              Filipinos would definitely prefer Colombian style tamales!! Colombian tamales always tasted like a filipino dish to me.

            3. re: Sam Fujisaka

              I had tamales for lunch yesterday in a Mexican restaurant on York, PA. They were a generic norteno style tamal--like one finds frozen in supermarkets. I mentioned to Filippino friends in Canda that I was glad to have some but a bit disappointed. They were a far cry from the home-made tamales I have had. My friends told me that they bought some home-made tamales in Toronto which disappointed them because they were spicy, not sweet. In the Philippines, they said, tamales are sweet. So I went on line and found some Filippino versions. They contained rice, peanuts, ansuete (annato) for color, pork, chorizo de Bilbao, shrimp, coconut milk, and brown sugar. They also looked quite large. Since Guam is on the trade route from Mazatlan to Manila, I checked for the Guam version, known as tamales gisu or geso (though one source wrote tamales queso). These are corn based, may contain achote (annato again) and have the fire of bird peppers. So the world of tamales may be extremely varied--like dim sum or the many filled pasta dishes of the world. I am surprised no one has opened a chain of tamal restaurants. Perhaps some enterprising Chinese will open one like a dim sum place, with carts filled with steamed tamal treasures from around the Pacific Basin. I'd be fearful of the idea falling into gringo hands. Bigger and better tamales filled with sliced sirloin and the like. Actually, I think I wouldn't mind some fusion approaches. I mean, calabasa and maiz and habichuelas have such a natural affinity that a pumpkin or bean filled tamal might be rather good.

              1. re: Father Kitchen

                The favorite one that I have made: fresh roasted poblano strips, homemade tomatillo sauce (with same poblanos) drained, marinated cara mia artichoke hearts, goat cheese. I buy the masa without lard and mix it up in my mixer with butter and chicken broth. (The masa is fresh ground from a Mexican store in San Francisco.) Homemade like this are so much better.

        2. They take a long time to make. My husband and I have a routine we've got down pat. We make the fillings the day before, and make the dough and assemble the next afternoon. A necessary component to the whole process is a 12 pak of ice cold Corona or other mexican beer.

          1. It is time consuming for sure. And if you've never made them before it can be a little tricky to dial in the consistency of the masa and the proportions of filling to masa when you make them. Just takes a little practice. You can make it fun by inviting friends over for a tamale stuffing party. It helps to have an assembly line going.

            Because of the time, it's worth it to make a few different fillings so you have some variety.

            1. Agree with all other posts. The tamales are often stuffed with a chicken or pork with mole sauce and if you look up mole sauce recipes (which is just one ingredient in the tamales) it can sometimes be time and ingredient consuming depending on what recipe you use. Also there is some shopping to be done to gather up all necessary supplies unless you already cook Mexican-style dishes a lot. There are faster recipes out there but they are probably not worth it. It's kind of like making a fast chili; it can be done, but the flavor might not be the best that it could be.


              1. the other issue no one has mentioned - and one reason your Mexican friends may find the idea amusing - is that for truly authentic homemade tamales you would need to make your own masa from scratch (using dried hominy) or at least track down a source for high-quality fresh ground masa.

                1. Along with the fact that it's time consuming (not DIFFICULT) like has already been mentioned, one other thing is that your mexican families will probably be making hundreds of them at a time. I usually do batches of like 30 to 50 at a time, and for two people, it's pretty much an all day affair. Start in the am, and make the fillings. I usually only do chicken verde, but if you were doing a pork shoulder, then you might wanna think about roasting it off the day before. anyway, I do my chicken- usually bone in thighs and legs. While it's cooking, I'll do the masa. Whatever your recipe calls for, if you want great dough, you should use the cold water test. (look it up.)

                  Oh Yeah - you should soak your hojas overnight - don't forget.

                  So, once the masa is done and ready. it's time to pick the meat off the bone.

                  so now, it's formation time. masa on the correct side of the Hoja, some meat mixture, and wrap.

                  N ow, an hour or so of steaming after you set up the steamer with more of the hojas. I stand the tamals upright - I prefer them that way. also, look up the coin trick for your steamer. If your water runs out, and you smell the pan burning, it's too lat, they are ruined. The burnt pan flavor permeates the dough VERY quickly, and it is NOT good.

                  They are really not DIFFICULT, just time consumimng. WELL worth the effort, though. Always fun to make. Good luck!

                  1. the punch line to my favorite tamale joke:

                    and then the Gringo says "Me gustaba las tamales pero la lechuga es un poco duro."

                    1 Reply
                    1. It's time consuming and labor intensive but, as far as being "difficult" - no way.
                      We make them with beef, pork. chicken, fruit fillings, etc. ... and we're Gringos.

                      1. I've got plenty of beer, but only one helper. Tomorrow we begin. I'll keep you posted.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: stricken

                          I made them this year for the first time and they came out great....check out my recipe and how I did it here:


                          Mine was a two day affair, but I did it by myself, and it's easier than making pasties...they freeze well.

                        2. Tamales - my favorite food. I'm betting the laughter is probably based on the difficulty of labor, not technique. Liken it to if any of them were to tell you they were going to make a big batch of chicken and dumplings. They'd probably get it right after a couple of tries, but the first time might be amusing.

                          I agree with the other posters though that the consistency of the masa can cause difficulty. Of course, if you read up tamales, you will find a wide variation in terms of ingredients, steaming wraps, fillings, etc, so maybe their experience was with a particularly difficult recipe.

                          I had some good luck with my last batch - the fist time I used banana leaves.


                          1 Reply
                          1. re: GDSinPA

                            I get similar responses, and I think part of it is that they are surprised that a gringo (and a guy--cooking is still very much women's work in Mexico) would make them. And I think I note a certain tone of reservation, along the lines of: "Hey, that's OUR special food, not yours!"

                            Finally, a Mexican friend told me that making/selling tamales is considered to be the economic activity of last resort (for women). She cited a catch phrase that was something like "yo hiciera eso si tuviera que vender tamales" [I would do that even if I had to sell tamales, as in: "I'm going to the Madonna concert even if I had to sell tamales to buy the ticket."

                            I am also guessing that the lovely ladies who sell them might want to play up how hard they are to make...

                            Another aside: I think that latkes are equally culture-laden in the Jewish community--they really are not hard to make and they taste, well, like tasty potato pancakes. But my Jewish friends go on and on about them, how special they are, etc.

                          2. Traditional, individually wrapped tamales take a lot of time to make the meat and sauce whether you work from fresh masa or bagged masa harina para tamales.

                            Personally I make equally traditional but much less labor intensive Baked Tamals - a large rolled "log" filled with goodies. Make your masa dough. Lay down a sheet of heavy foil about 18" long. Lay down on that a bed of soaked corn husks at least a foot long. With a spatula lay down on the corn husks about half of the masa in a layer 1/4" to 1/2" thick. In the middle off that put your meat, beans, whatever and top with your sauce. Bring up the long sides to form a trough. Add the remaining masa on top of the filling, and pinch to seal in the goodness. Roll the foil over to seal the log and roll up the ends. Bake at 375 for half an hour, then 325 for an hour.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: KiltedCook

                              Many of my Mexican friends make dozens and dozens of wonderful tamales, and that's a lot of work. I usually make 4 or 5 dozen, and it can be pretty relaxing once you get into a rhythm. Easier if you make the filling a day or so ahead. A couple of weeks ago I made beef tamales as well as corn, green chili and cheese - forgot to get Mexican cheese and used the goat cheese that was on hand - pretty terrific. Try it, have fun.

                            2. As other posts have noted, it's just time consuming. They are wonderful, however. My Tia always sends me at least 24-36 dozen tamales at Christmas to last me through the year. They are my favorite meal and I only eat them on special occasions since I've moved away from New Mexico and now live in South Carolina. I'm still looking for good supplies for making the masa in Greenville, SC? My Tia always makes me green chile tamales, red chile tamales, bean & jalapeno tamales for my veggie hubby, and sweet tamales with pecans and raisins. She only uses pork. Your post made me homesick but with such wonderful memories! I bring tamales to some potlucks at work and people just LOVE them. It's so hard to get good Mexican food here. But back home, making tamales was always a two day process with many people in the assembly line as we made at least 200 dozen! Everyone always had some to take home, to freeze and then she also had very local customers who put in sizable orders every year.