Thursday, September 23, 2010

¡Hot Tamales!

Three and a half years ago I spent my very first day in Mexico sweating, eating tamales and then sweating again–from both the heat and the salsa roja. I was in La Paz, Baja California with my brother and a friend, and we had not the slightest clue what was going on. Everyone was ten inches shorter than we'd expected, the language I thought I had a handle on was suddenly as useful as sanskrit, and none of the food looked anything like it's gringo representations. (Though the most startling element was the style of marketing endemic in Mexico, whereby a monstrous speaker is employed to pulverise the customer's auditory canal with reggaeton while they choose a new pair of socks, a child's toy or crockery set. As any traveller to Mexico knows, the key is firing up the speaker at eight in the morning, then running it ragged until the music is quite distorted. There was one stationed about 20 feet from our hotel room.)

Amongst all this new food the only thing that seemed familiar was tamales, which as far as I knew were something or other wrapped in a corn husk. So when I saw something or other wrapped in a corn husk, I bought four of the things and never looked back.

Of course, they are not all wrapped in corn husks. Many are steamed in banana leaves and a small few are baked without a casing. The diversity of fillings is more striking, and can vary from beans and chiles to mole poblano, salsa verde with pulled pork or just herbs and cheese. Then there are sweet tamales, like those coffee and cinnamon scented delights in Chiapas, or the buttered rice-masa with raisins here in Oaxaca. And beyond the joy of eating them, they are quite fun to make.

I've tried my hand at them a few times, with varying degrees of success. This last batch was the one where it all came together. The filling is key, but the all important point is the masa and how you treat it. The following tamales were filled with pulled pork and mole poblano, the second type salsa pepian and black beans. There is nothing extraordinary about these sauces, any of the mole recipes from this blog will make a good filling as long as they are well seasoned.

Tamales Relleno de
Mole Poblano y Puerco

Makes 12-16

300g pork shoulder
1 small white onion, halved
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup Mole Poblano
1kg prepared masa de tamal*
200g manteca or lard (or vegetable shortening if preferred)
2 teaspoons salt
16 corn husks
  1. Trim any sinew from the pork and place in a small saucepan with the onion, garlic and salt then cover with water. Bring to the boil then simmer for around two hours until falling apart. Let cool in its own stock.
  2. Unwrap the corn husks and cover with hot water for 30 minutes to soften.
  3. Place the masa in a large bowl (or bowl of a mixer) and add the lard. Beat by hand or on a medium speed for a few minutes until well aerated. Continue beating while adding the salt and some of the stock from the pork to loosen the masa until it is like a thick porridge. The amount of stock required will depend on the initial masa, but 50-100ml usually suffices. Reserve the masa.
  4. Remove the pork from it's stock then shred by hand. Mix with the mole poblano and reserve.
  5. Remove the corn husks from the water and shake dry. Trim off any un-desirable parts, then tear-off 20 long strips of the husk (these are used to tie the tamales closed).
  6. With a spatula, spread about half a cup of the masa inside the husk covering from left to right, then from the base to about halfway up the husk. Spoon in an appropriate amount of the pork mixture to the centre of the masa. Now carefully fold the husk over from left to right then fold the pointed end over so that the tamale is well closed. Use the strip of husk to tie the tamale closed. Repeat until the mixture is used up.
  7. Place in a steamer and add boiling water. Steam the tamales for around 45 minutes, then test by un-peeling one of the husks. If it comes away clean from the dumpling, its ready. If you need to top up the water at any point, be sure to use boiling water so as to ensure the tamales do not cool down mid-cook.
  8. Let sit for at least ten minutes before serving.

*If you are making masa from dehydrated corn flour, using the pork stock in place of water will improve the flavour considerably. In this case, reduce the additional salt to a single teaspoon.


  1. How do you make the salsa pepia?

  2. Salsa pepian recipe will be up in a few weeks, but in the meantime there is a good one in Diana Kennedy's book The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.