Among the best holiday traditions for Mexican American/Chicano/a families is the tamalada — getting together to laugh and exchange a bit of gossip as you form an assembly line to spread, fill, fold and steam pounds of tamales. This work, sometimes done in shifts, comes after hours of prep work has already been done to prepare the chili, cook the meat and soak the corn husks.
We expect tamales each year, but it requires a lot of work – unless you’re going to buy them. There are now locations where you can buy tamales year-round, but they just can’t compare to those you grew up eating. This time of year, there are long lines at Mexican delis everywhere to buy pounds of prepared masa (dough made from corn flour),but for the most traditional of family cooks, there is a lot of pride in grinding and preparing the masa as their authentic family recipe, which is seriously labor intensive.
But, like a wrapped gift – tamales are more than food – they are the smell and taste of home, culture and even art that can bring lively conversation about which family member makes “thee best tamal.”
“What’s the best way to steam them – is it better to tie them with a string torn from your corn husk or just fold them?” “Whose chili sauce that marinates the meat and other fillings is best? Who is too stingy with the meat?” “Can you make a good tamal without using lard?” “How many sweet ones should you make – who really likes them anyway?” are all part of the debate.
As the family recipe is handed down and will always be the most cherished, there are attempts to try to make new versions – even vegan tamales, which can bring a few eye rolls and more debate. How can you make a healthy tamal or should you just enjoy this annual decadence, even if it contains manteca (lard) – can you just love its fluffy texture in peace, guilt free once a year without someone bringing it up?
It’s been noted and even the subject of research papers that tamales are part of our ancestral DNA, the origin of maiz as sacred food has required much care and cultivating and is the staple of the Mexican diet.
Tamales can be traced back to Mesoamerica with their image etched in murals. Its name, rooted in the Nahuatl word tamalli, means “wrapped” and is noted as one of the oldest foods still eaten today. The Aztecs reportedly ate tamales made with turkey, flamingo, frog, axolotl, pocket gopher, rabbit, fish, turkey, eggs, honey fruits, squash, beans or with no filling at all.
The tamal continues to evolve and there are countless versions – unique to each household or even the person who makes them. They are filled with every kind of possible meat, vegetable, mushrooms, cheese, bean and for the connoisseurs and those who embrace an original indigenous diet, there are tamales made with chapulines (crickets) used as a protein-packed ingredient and also used to make cricket flour as masa.
In LA and the Valley, there are many versions of the tamal to choose from.
The beauty of living in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley is its diversity — without traveling, you can find nearly every cuisine to explore — including the many versions of the tamal to choose from. As the Latino and indigenous population in Los Angeles continue to grow, so does our city’s cuisine.
You can find tamales from Mexico which can vary from region to region. At restaurants in LA that specialize in southern Mexican cuisine, they offer tamales from Veracruz that are wrapped in a banana leaf, known as zacahuil. You can also find tamales commonly made in Oaxaca with wet masa and the fillings are made with complex mole sauces and are also wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
If you visit a local Guatemalan restaurant or deli, the tamales are large and use achiote filling making them red so they are often referred to as tamales colorados. They have a distinctive flavor that also uses cinnamon, cloves and other spices.
From Colombia, there is the tamal tolimense made from yellow dough with rice, chickpeas and a hard boiled egg wrapped in a plantain leaf.
In Venezuela, there are Hallacas with ingredients that vary from region to region in a hearty stew wrapped in the plantain. You can also find the Caribbean version of the tamal: Pasteles en Hoja which are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Tasting the various versions can be an interesting way to broaden your palate as it travels through the ingredients that reflect each countries’ terrains.
But, for those fortunate enough to have a family who has a boisterous tamalada and makes them each year – that tamal is asurredly, most likely to be your favorite.
But, whatever kind you prefer and whoever you believe makes “thee very best” – what’s always agreed – it just wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales.