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Dec 25, 2008 02:07 AM

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.