Friday, June 8, 2012

Tamale Making – Re-found Ritual

Once a year for New Year’s Day, my grandmother would make tamales. I remember the smell of meats and spices cooking, the large steamers, the corn husks soaking in water. My mother used to help her. They would sit at the kitchen table with all the prepared ingredients spread out. My grandmother would usually make three types of tamales: Pork, beef, and sweet. To the meats, she would add little bits of vegetables and after spreading the masa and meat, she would add a few olives. They would go through the process until there was no more masa: Spreading the masa dough, adding meat, olives, and folding the tamales. I would come in from playing outside, watch for a bit, looking over my mother’s shoulder, sneaking a few olives to plop in my mouth.

I’ve ordered tamales in various Mexican restaurants and I haven’t found one that I really like. There is one place that I can get tamales that are everything I want a tamale to be: Flavorful and moist, and that is the Farmer’s Market. I used to go every Sunday and the sauce they provide is out of this world. It is a green sauce made with tomatillos, jalapeno peppers, onion, and cilantro. There was a time when I couldn’t stand the flavor of cilantro. I don’t know when that changed, but it could have been the tamales at the Farmer’s Market that converted me into a lover of cilantro.

Pork tamales are my favorite and when the seasoned pork meat, the cooked masa, and green sauce all come into contact, my taste buds are in absolute heaven. I stopped going every Sunday and now it’s a treat when I do go.  I tried to replicate the salsa about two years ago and I wasn’t able to tame the pungency of the tomatillos, nor was I able to achieve the same consistency. It seems there is an art to making sauces and salsas and it is one that I haven’t even begun to master. One day I hope to make a Chili sauce I can be proud of. Recent attempts send me back to the drawing board. I have a feeling my next attempt is going to be a good one.

Chili was always a staple on my grandmother’s table, but my young taste buds always passed on the fiery heat of her chili sauces. I have distant memories of her blending the roasted Chili’s in her kitchen. They are only fuzzy memories, no recipes, no secrets passed down.

My significant other and I were looking through a booklet of cooking classes a few months ago. We had signed up for two: One was tamale making. The first class was filled, so we had to wait until June. We had our class over the weekend. It was a short class, 2.5 hours. It’s true that his mother could have shown us how to make tamales. She also makes them once a year and sometimes twice a year on special occasions. And she chided him for it when he told her we took the class.

The instructor was a nice woman whose father was from Guatemala and her mother from Mexico, so she grew up learning how to make two different types of tamales. I thought it was interesting when she described how precise her father was in contrast to her mother’s methods. He was meticulous down to tying of the banana leaves just so.

I’m glad that we took the class because now if we do help my significant other’s mother down the road, we’ll be able to build on what we learned. Tamale making takes a lot of preparation, but once you have everything set up, time and patience is all you’ll need. This was my first time making tamales, and now I feel that I would be able to prepare them at home. The only issue for us would be having enough space to spread everything out.

We broke out into groups and we were in different groups for our tamale assembly. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to hold the corn husk in my hand while spreading the masa into a square, being sure to come close to the edge on one side, leaving room on the other side for proper folding and not spreading too far to the upper edge to avoid leakage. I could visualize being in my grandmother’s kitchen and watching her and my mother make tamales with ease. My tamales were small until I started getting more comfortable and adding more masa, then they became a larger small. 

The instructor guided us after showing us: She said to make a square shape on the cornhusk with the masa and then with the meat a rectangle over the square. When we fold the tamale, we should not see the meat. Folding would seem simple enough, but if the masa wasn’t positioned right, it would ooze out the sides. I felt good about my tamales. We brought plastic bags to take them home for cooking. The group that my significant other was in made tamales that looked much too large. They were like bricks compared to my dainty tamales. We also made one sweet tamale.

I was more interested in eating my tamales than my significant other. For him, it wasn’t as big a deal. For me, I steamed them the moment we walked in the door. When they were done, I was so proud of myself! The dough was firm, yet moist and they tasted good for a first tamale.

Next time we make tamales on our own, I’ll be thinking of my grandmother and mother, and feel like I’m part of the ritual that I can now fully participate in.

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