Tamalada is a great holiday event that brings together family and friends, I’ve even had work teams want to do this as a team building activity and then they proudly enjoy their tamales at their holiday party!
Gingerbread and sugar cookies are seasonal musts for many, but tamales are a holiday staple for Mexican and Latino families like mine. For centuries, tamales were the ideal travel food for Aztec, Mayan and Incan soldiers, farmers or anyone who might be away from home at mealtime because the stuffed delicacies travel so well in their own little ‘packaging’, aka the corn husks. Countless variations have been passed down from generation to generation.
In Mexico through Latin America and in the USA too, around this time of year begins the tamales making, aka, tamaladas, it’s basically our holiday kick off, and it’s essentially the coming together of people to assemble tamales together. Some choose to cook them and share them with friends, same way we do for cookies, others freeze them uncooked and cook them the day of their holiday celebrations. If you go to a holiday celebration with Latinos, most likely you are going to eat tamales!
As for making the tamales, it can be a bit timely and labor intense process, so for those that host a tamalada, typically they either make the filling options and masa in advance, or purchase it ready to use from a restaurant or deli like ours El Burrito Mercado. Masa is the corn dough that spreads onto the corn husk, it’s important to have a good masa, meaning it is prepared with the right balance of ingredients, this is a key determinator for whether your tamales will make it or not! I highly recommend buying or masa preparada (ready to spread corn dough), and we do also sell masa regular, some people like to mix their own ingredients into the masa.
For the fillings, the most traditional of tamales fillings is shredded pork in a red chile sauce or shredded chicken in a green sauce, there is an extensive variety of tamales filling options, and so it’s really up to the hostess to decide and have it ready in advance. Some other variations: roasted poblano with cheese, vegetables, beef, beans, and peppers. The other step that a hostess might want to have ready in advance is the preparation of the hojas by soaking them in hot water, this makes the tamales pliable and easier to for spreading the masa onto. I remember when we had tamaladas with our cousins, there were so many we’d soak the hojas in a bathtub!
For hosting your own tamalada party, like most Latino & Mexican fiestas, you’ll serve some food to share and depending on the time of day you host yours, perhaps cocktails and/or cafecito- this is also a great time to try making Ponche Navideno, I shared the recipe in my previous blog A Latino Thanksgiving. Also, turn on some festive holiday music in the background (Pandora has great Navidad Latino stations) Some menu ideas for your tamalada, keep in mind your kitchen will be filled with tamales making ingredients, so keep it simple- guacamole & chips, mini burritos, rolled taquitos, and pan dulce (mexican pastries), finger food type stuff.
If it’s with small children, it’s fun to give them the job of soaking the corn husks, but really, everyone can participate in the spreading of the masa onto the corn husk. Tamaladas require quite a bit of table space and non-carpeted areas so afterwards you can easily clean up the spilled masa pieces. Based on the setup of your home, you can use counter tops, dining tables, and folding card tables, some people form an ‘assembly’ line where basically each person has a chore, and there can be more than one person per chore, for example: 1) Soak corn husks & make sure the hojas are all consistent size by tearing & cutting the hojas 2) Masa spreaders, this is the job that requires the most skill 3) Tamal filling & wrapping- wrapping the tamal gently but tightly also has it’s special knack.
Another way for settin up the tamalada is for each person to have a bowl of masa and filling in front of them to make their own tamales, this is especially a great way if you have a variety of filling choices so each person is responsible for a certain flavor, especially for this you will also need considerable amount of table top usage for this to spread out. Have plenty of soup spoons or mini spatulas for your guests to experiment for the masa spreading, for this, there is no one perfect technique, some people use flat spatulas, spoons, butter knives, some even use a masa spreader, whatever is easiest for each. As for how much masa to spread onto each tamal, well, again, there is no exact measurement because it depends on the size of the hoja. A couple of guidelines is to fill the corn husk no more than about 1/4 from the top, and the top is the narrower end of the corn husk. The hoja has one smoother side and one rougher side, you want to spread the masa on the smoother side of the hoja. Finally, the masa should be about 1/4″ thick, see some of these illustrations for reference.
As the person wrapping the tamal finishes up, someone can help either placing the tamales in the tamalera (cooking pot) if you are going to cook them right away, or into freezable ziplock bags – if you do this, be sure to lay the tamales flat in the freezer, not piled up. Cooking the tamales also has some important points to remember, it’s another determining factor on whether or not your tamales will be a soggy mess or perfectly assembled and beautiful tamal.
To cook the tamales, you’ll need a tamalera or some type of pot with a strainer & steam, fill the bottom of the pan with water, place tamales on the strainer open end face up, cover tightly low heat for about 1.5hrs. A couple of tamales cooking tips passed down from tias (aunts) and my mama, place a coin at the bottom of the pan, if you hear the coin rattling it means you need to add more water, pour the water carefully down the sides, not over your tamales! And to know when your tamales are cooked? When you begin peeling back the hoja, masa does not stick to the corn husk.
If you decide to cook the tamales while guests are over, maybe have loteria game (Mexican bingo card game) to play together while they cook,and also stock up on baggies or disposable aluminum trays for everyone to take some home. And, it’s a messy affair, so plan for some time to clean up the next day, you’ll be exhausted from your tamalada!
I am all about hands on involvement, it’s the best way to learn new things and to truly understand and appreciate others experiences. Tamaladas really are an enjoyable experience, they are a lot of work too, but when you focus on the delicious delicacy you will enjoy and appreciate made with your own hands while enjoying time with special people, and making memories. I really can’t think of another food that can be prepared party style? I find this to be a beautiful food not only for it’s unique and clever swaddle of delicacy, the mere complex preparation of them is important.
Tamales is a food that is representative of Latinos, we are a united culture with strong family and community values, though our style of tamales varies, we share in common the ‘it takes a village’ mentality, and the same is true with making tamales. Sure, you can make tamales by yourself, but like life, you can lighten your burden and make it enjoyable with the support of others.
I started the tamalada classes through El Burrito Mercado as a way to offer a unique experience, La Experiencia Mexicana to our customers, and it’s probably the richest, Mexican food related experience one might have. We offer two every year around this time of year and we sell out each year, we just had our first tamalada for this year a couple weeks ago, and it really truly is a special experience not just for our customers, but for myself too. My parents are now retired, but we were able to convince my mother to teach the class. Her down to earth, practical, and very ‘mama’ style of teaching, makes it so special for our customers, and for myself, I learn something new every time she teaches, it’s an endearing, memorable experience. Our second tamalada is also sold out, we plan to host more classes & experiences in 2016 with the expansion of our El Cafe Restaurant y Bar.
Wishing you happy tamalada celebrations! El Burrito Mercado is your one stop tamalada stop!
Please contact me if I can be of assistance in planning your tamalada, firstname.lastname@example.org