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Jan 3, 2011 08:46 AM

Christmas Tamales Rojos Guatemaltecos – Or never trust anyone who feeds you for no apparent reason …

… especially if you are a duck.

I never fully comprehended how much work making tamales is ... particularly the special Christmas edition. The day started at 8:00 am and ended at 8:30 pm.

It is a little late for the holiday season just past, but if anyone is interested in the future, here’s the details


This recipe makes over 100 tamales. The measurements are inexact, at best. Bottles and bags of things were used. I have a number of Guatemalan cookbooks with similar recipes and will include what those books used.


4 ducks, 1 gallina (special chicken breed) and 1 regular chicken that got in the way. Actually you can use any meat that pleases you … pork, beef, turkey, goose, etc

From various cookbooks

* 10 lbs boneless pork, or boned chicken or turkey (most tamales have meat with bones)

** 1 turkey, 1 pound bacon, 3 lbs pork

* False Tongues and Sunday Bread by Copeland Marks

** Cocina Regional Guatemalteca (note doubling what is in the book as this recipe only makes 40 tamales.


Note: An 8 inch frying pan was used

dried chile guaque (chile guajillo) - one layer in the frying pan ** 6 chiles guaque
dried chile pasas (pasilla) - enough to cover the bottom of a frying pan ** 5 chiles seco
Pepino (squash seeds) - one layer in the frying pan **6 ounces
Sesame seeds - one layer in frying pan 1/2 inch deep ** 4 ounces
1 walnut (nuez)
Miltomates (tomatillos) – a small bag ** 1 lb
2 onions, quartered
Lots of Roma tomatoes ** 80 tomatoes
Red bell peppers - * 3 cups sliced
Achiote – * one teaspoon
Vegetable oil one bottle - ** 8 ounces lard
Salt – a few handfuls to taste


Masa harina (a few bags) - * 8 pounds
Rice – a bowlful ** 2 lbs
Vegetable oil – one bottle * 3 – 5 lbs of lard, butter or margarine
Saborin - A few handfuls
Powdered chicken bouillon – A few handfuls
Salt – a few handfuls to taste
Water – enough for the right consistency * 25 quarts


Green olives (with seeds) - one bag ** 1 lb
Raisins – a few bags or about 400 – 600
Prunes – a few bags or about 100 – 200
Red peppers – sliced in strips or enough for 1 – 2 strips per tamal

A stack of plantano leaves – about 100
A bundle of cibaque to tie the tamales
A few bundles of hoja de sal (Maxan leaves)

The first reply will start the instructions

All 75 photos and step by step instructions are in this Flicrk photo stream

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  1. Gladys, the tamale lady (and neighbor and friend), came in to orchestrate the entire process. From my understanding she does this at a number of homes for the holidays and events. She spent 12 hours at our house, all of the on her feet, never sitting. The next day she was going to repeat this process at another home.


    Irma went out to feed the poultry as always. They stand around the door waiting for her and she coos and talks to them while feeding them. She selected one duck, tied its feet and put it inside near the washing machine.

    Then she selected another, tied its feet and hung it from a string. With one swift move she twisted its neck in a motion that looked like a carress or patting its head. The process was repeated with the other poultry. Only the gallina put up a commotion when picked up … a more intelligent as well as tasty breed of fowl.

    A knife slit the throats of the poultry to drain the blood which dripped crimson on the ground. Wringing the neck of one duck had not killed it, and as it started to flap when the knife moved across its throat, Irma said gently … in the same tone she says to the dog or kids when they get excited and need to calm down … “Tranquilo”

    The other chickens ignored the whole process and had their usual poultry feed breakfast.

    A poyo was ‘built’ and a fire started. A poyo is made up of cinderblocks with wood in the center. Pots, grills and comals are placed on top to cook.

    Buckets of water were filled from the pila, a large sink everyone has in Guatemala. The large concrete pilas with three sink areas are used for everything from preparing food, to washing clothes, dishes and babies … and probably a bunch of uses I haven’t seen or imagined yet. They are usually painted in bright colors.

    A small blue pot with a cover was filled with the water to boil. This was transferred to a larger pan

    The poultry was dipped in a pot of boiling water for about five minutes and still steaming, hung on the fence. The feathers were pulled off by handfuls

    The poultry was then dipped again in boiling water and the rest of the pin feathers removed.

    As the scrapes were thrown to the ground, the other poultry gathered and ate it up … it’s a duck eat duck world.

    The ladies then moved to the pila where the poultry was gutted and chopped. Breasts, legs and wings were put in one bucket. Organ meat, feet and necks were put in another. There were sounds of hack, hack, hack. The whole process from poultry to pieces took about two hours

    The neighbors and relative started to show up and the house filled with laughter. The kids ran around, the teens gathered and gossiped. The ladies chatted while plucking and processing the poultry.

    Note: It is perfectly acceptable to buy your meat from a butcher or supermarket. In that case, skip step 1

    Continued in next post …

    10 Replies
    1. re: rworange


      The table was laid out with many of the ingredients – dried chiles, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, miltomates, onions, red bell peppers, olives, raisins, prunes, achiote, salt, bouillon, saborin.

      Plantano leaves were neatly stacked. These are used as the outer wrapping. The filling is put on the dull side. Don’t know if there’s any significance to doing it this way or if it is just because the dark green side looks nicer. Maybe it folds easier this way.

      There were bags of neatly folded Maxan leaves. A square of Maxan will be placed on the plantano leaf to add flavor.

      In the cookbook False Tongues and Sunday Bread, Copeland Marks writes it is “The leaf of the Palmyra palm tree that is the standard wrapper for tamales, steamed fish, farmers cheese or any other type of food to be carried home …. The leaf appears impervious as plastic and as useful. When used with tamales it does impart what could be described as a clean, natural flavor rather than one that is distinctive”

      I don’t know about that. The flavor of Maxan seems important as stated in this great article in El Periodico. It is in Spanish so if that is not your language, run it thru a translator. Good stuff about how Maxan is harvested

      One municipality where it is harvested is Pueblo Nuevo Suchitepéquez. Sold by the bundle, “The bundle consists of 20 sheets and is usually sold in the markets by Q0.75”. That is just under $1 USD.

      From (in English) …

      “most people rather have tamales cooked and wrapped in Maxan leaves. Maxan leaves are bigger, harder and give the tamales more flavour. Maxan leaves are found in humid places like rivers. The Cibaque is a thread extracted from the Maxan plants and it is used to tie the maxan leaves with the tamales”

      A bundle of cibaque (tamale string) shared space with the tomatoes on top of the fridge.

      Buckets were filled with pepino and tamarindo. Baskets and bags of Roma tomatoes were on counters, tables and in and on top of the fridge.

      1. re: rworange


        Pour water from soaking tamarinds into a pitcher. This will later be added to the sauce

        Soak chiles. Heat a frying pan and add a layer of chile guaque. Cook until skin blisters. Remove from pan. Repeat with a layer of chile pasas.

        Add a little vegetable oil to a frying pan, heat and a layer of pepino seeds to cover the bottom of the pan. Heat until toasted.

        Remove pepino and add about a half inch of sesame seeds to the pan and brown. Enjoy the wonderful aroma of the seeds toasting. Add sesame seeds to pot where the pepino seeds are being reserved

        Heat one walnut in shell. It was called a nuez and that can mean other things like pecan … but given the vast quantity of the sauce, I doubt if it would be noticed what nut was used. I kept asking … really? Solo uno nuez? Si.

        Remove walnut from pan, whack open on a table, return nut with shell to frying pan and toast.

        Pick through white rice bought at the corner market to remove unidentified black specks. The rice is ground to make rice flour that is added to the masa.

        Quarter two onions. De-hull tomatillos and de-seed red bell peppers, Set aside in a basket. Put some of the seeds in plant pots for fertilizer. Feed the rest of the scraps to the surviving poultry.

        Build another fire in the poyo. Add spices, nuts, seeds and veggies to a huge pot and put on the poyo

        Cover and cook for two hours. What’s that Gladys? Y media?

        Every time I asked Gladys how long something would cook she would say two hours, pause and add, and a half. Two and a half hours.

        I missed this next action. When the cooked veggies had cooled, Gladys hoisted the pan, balanced it on her head and took off for 15 minutes. She came back with sauce. I think she ran the veggies thru a grinder.

        Cut up a little achiote and add to the sauce. If possible use achiote wrapped in a husk just because it looks really cool. The tamarind water was added to the sauce. More about achiote in this topic

        Try not to step on the pollito (aka baby chick or future tamal) that snuck into the house. Please, please tell me it wasn’t looking for mom.

        Continued in next post …

        1. re: rworange


          Take a couple of bags of masa and add water. Mix with your hands

          Add rice flour, a few handfuls of salt and a handful or two of powdered bouillon to taste

          Add a few handfuls of saborin to the masa. I’m not sure what this is, but it might be msg. Here’s more in this Chowhound topic.

          Once the masa has been thoroughly blended with the water and seasoned correctly, transfer to a larger bucket and continue to add water and mix until it feels as if the texture is right

          Continued in next post …

          1. re: rworange


            When masa is thoroughly mixed, bring in the pot to cook it. Start up another fire on the poyo. Add vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Have three people help pick up the tub of masa and pour it into the pot.

            Stir constantly. Quanto tiempo, Gladys? Dos horas … y media … and they really did stir the masa two and a half hours.

            Every now and then, have anyone who is standing nearby take a taste from the paddle. Add oil, salt and bouillon to taste. A whole bottle of vegetable oil eventually was added.

            When the masa had thickened, it was removed from the fire and half was transferred into a smaller pan.

            It turns out poultry loved masa also and needed to be constantly shooed away from the pot. Poultry are persistent and not multi lingual. My warning as they came near the pot was “Shoo … two words … turkey tamales”. I was ignored.

            That was one lucky turkey as it had not matured enough this year to make it into the tamales. This year, masa in turkey. Next year, turkey in masa. We were going to buy a turkey, but the supermarkets were cleaned out of turkeys because everyone was making Christmas tamales.

            Transfer sauce to pot on poyo. Stir the sauce. How long, Gladys? Dos horas … y media.

            She stood there another two and a half hours constantly stirring, trying to find positions where she wasn’t inhaling the smoke. The weird thing was, she never had a clock, but each step always turned out to be very close to two and a half hours.

            Add oil and salt to taste. Another large bottle of vegetable oil was eventually added to the sauce.

            Continued in next post …

            1. re: rworange


              Using a wet cloth, wipe the plantano leaves on both sides. Cut tough stem ends off plantano leaves. Cut maxan leaves into squares

              Fill one sink in the pila with water and put the bunch of cibaque in it to soak. When ready, remove and cut lengths that will wrap a tamal, about two feet long.

              Continued in next post …

              1. re: rworange


                Cut red peppers into strips. Put prunes, raisins and olives into bowls.

                THE “A” LIST TAMALES

                These tamales have all the ingredients and use the best of the poultry cuts.

                Center a maxin leaf on a plantano leaf. Add two ladles of masa. Make a little well in the center. Add a large ladle of sauce

                Add a piece of raw chopped poultry. Gladys was the most proficient at this. Everyone else just topped the sauce with the piece of meat. Gladys dredged once side of the meat in the sauce and flipped it to dredge the other side. Add a bit more sauce.

                Add one green olive, about a half dozen raisins, one or two prunes and top with red pepper strips

                Fold the sides to the center. Fold them over each other like you would fold a brown paper sandwich bag to seal it. Now take one end and fold it to the center. Tap the end to pack the masa. Fold over the other end. Tie with cibaque

                THE “B” LIST TAMALES

                There’s still lots of masa, but everything else is running low. Instead of breast, wings and legs, the meat is now organ meat, necks and feet. The olives ran out first, then the peppers, then the maxan, then the good plantano leaves.

                Gladys ran home and brought back some drying plantano leaves that were half the size of the originals. She used the trim from the other leaves or two plantano leaves instead of the maxan.

                Also, technique slipped. The first few tamales were works of art, precisely assembled. Somewhere around tamal 70, people started to tire.

                Continued in next post …

                1. re: rworange

                  STEP 8 COOK THE TAMALES

                  Light up the poyo again. Put a little water in the bottom of the pot. Add pot lids and plantano leaf scraps to keep the tamales raised off the bottom of the pot and to allow steam to circulate.

                  Layer the tamales. Some were special for some reason or another. One daughter made some especially for her dad. These are put in ordinary, everyday plastic bags to keep them separate. No one seems worried that the plastic might not be healthy.

                  Cover the pot with plantano leaf scraps. It is 6:30 pm.

                  How long, Gladys?

                  Dos horas … y media

                  1. re: rworange

                    STEP 9 EAT THE TAMALES

                    We didn’t eat them when they were ready at 8:30. Instead they stayed outside all night. They were breakfast on the morning of the 24th served lukewarm straight from the outside pot

                    The tamal was served with hot chocolate and pan Frances for breakfast. For dinner on Christmas Eve they were served with ponche a hot beverage with bits of pineapple and apple.

                    The tamales sat out in the pot unrefrigerated until Christmas Day. Some were then refrigerated, some frozen and some just left on the counter for another day.

                    After all of that, I thought the tamales were fine on day one. However, over time as they aged, the flavors started to meld and I could pick up the smoke from the fire and the flavor of the wrapping.

                    On Christmas day the family had a picnic on the beach. The meat was grilled beef. However, tamales were brought along and put on the grill. Now you really had something … the lovely char flavor permeating the masa.

                    Belated happy holidays and best wishes for 2011

                    ¡Prospero Año Nuevo!

                    1. re: rworange

                      wonderful account!
                      so much for the complexity of P Wolfert's Cassoulet recipe.

                      1. re: rworange

                        This is the most lovely, personal series of posts I have yet to see on CH; thanks for letting us into your world on that holiday.

                        I appreciate your tongue in cheek attitude (as reasonably would be used, I hope:)) in that lovely world; where time spent on and off the fire, hard work by a bunch of dedicated ladies, and some practices that are not what we expect in our - 'first world' - whether we are right in thinking that is so - is correct.

                        I would give to be there for the making of the tamales. I would eat them however long they sat outside, etc. if I got that experience in the mix.

                        Thanks Rworange for sharing. It makes a difference.

                        And, the photos are priceless.

          1. Wow. Now that's some tamalada. Thanks for a peek into this experience.