How to make tamales - Food Gypsy

Mexican Quickies – How to Tamale

Published On July 20, 2010 | By Gypsy | Gastronomy, Tips & Techniques, Travel

Mexico is become a jumping off place for me, in and out and constantly on the move, it is also a place where I discover I’m hungry.  It creeps up on me, and… BAM… I’m starved!  Three minutes ago it was just fine but now I need food, fast.  This section on “Mexican Quickies” is a tribute to all the wonderful little places in the Yucatan that fed me… fast and cheap.  

Pollo D’ Juanita, on a Gral. Lazaro Cardenas, between Ave Ninos Heroes and Rojo Gomez, in Puerto Morelos, Mexico; you see signs everywhere for the little mom & pop BBQ chicken joints in Mexico, “Pollo BBQ” and an arrow, which you (loosely) follow.  They appear out of nowhere, move and change, open and close – all the time.

Is there a sign on the shop?  Sometimes.  Sometimes there is a sandwich board outside and sometimes there’s not.  The only sign inside is a piece of construction paper, written with felt pen behind a wooden counter on the right, it lists what they do, and sometimes don’t have.

I’ve come across this phenomenon several times in Mexico, you ask for something on the menu… “No, sorry, not today”… so you pick something else.   Three days later figuring you might get lucky you go back and ask for that same item, still listed on the menu, “No, sorry, not today”.  My theory: they never have it and they never will.  But, it got you through the door.  Clever.)

On the left three large refrigerators hum, chilling waiting beverages and large tubs of food with tight lids.   Straight ahead is another counter and behind that a kitchen; two slow cookers, a four burner stove, one oven, a sink and a prep board.  The grill is outside, 8’ x 4’ it’s fired up twice a week, early in the morning, burning sweet, smoky wood.    The town dogs circle when the matron of the business loads the hot grill up with fresh chicken, I think they too are a intimidated by the glare of the woman behind the grill, all four-foot-eight of her.  Juanita means business.

Pollo D' Juanita, Puerto Morelos - Food Gypsy

I could easily live off barbecued chicken.   In fact, I often do.  In and out of Puerto Morelos, Mexico for about a month; they know me now at Pollo D’ Juanita.  Such a bargain, 80 Pesos and you’ve got a full chicken, rice, black beans, coleslaw and salsa.  When I’m holed-up, writing, this one take-out is four meals.  For that I will endure all suspicious looks, the occasional sneer and rolling of the eyes Juanita sends in my direction so long as there’s good, cheap, chicken at the end of the transaction.  Nod and smile.  I am afterall Canadian, one must be polite.

Tamales are not usually on the menu, but on one happy ‘chicken run’, I open the door to find the formidable Juanita and her daughter, Gleacelda is making tamales.   Despite my lack of language skills, I manage to convey a desire to learn /watch how to make tamales with camera in hand.

Or as much as they are willing to share.  In Mexico, every cook has her own tamale recipe, her own sauce, her own masa mix, her own flavours.  I certainly did not get any family secrets out of Juanita (who bore holes though me with her icy stare), but Gleacelda gladly gave me a few moments of instruction in her (pretty darn good) English.  I kept up with my extraordinarily bad turista Spanish/action charades:

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“This is leaf.”  Banana leaf – check

“You put Masa.”  Masa dough mixture, like ground corn porridge.  OK.

“Sauce.”   Tomatillo sauce?  No… Tomato sauce…oh.  No hints.  Spices?  Nope.  Smells like garlic, sweet onion, cumin, tomatoes.

“Pollo.” Chicken spiced with Annatto seed, slightly sweet and peppery, Annatto is used in a number of rubs and roasting recipes in Mexico.  

“And…”  Topped with tomatoes and… arugula?  No.  Herb.   Epazote.  Another Mexican discovery for this Gypsy; strong and distinct, good for the tummy.  Use in small quantities.

“Fold.  Fold….”  Fold the leaf to keep the juices in, placing the empty part of the husk under so that it rests against the side of the tamale with a seam.

“…and… “ she fumbles with the tie, Juanita, who’s been watching the whole time steps in for the save, deftly slips the corn husk tie round and (shooting me a death stare), turns on her heel and leaves.  All tied up in a nice little bundle, the perfect tamale.  Waiting to be steamed (45 minutes to an hour, you know they’re ready when they separate easily from the banana leaf) and serve.

Thinking I might be getting a heads up on tomorrow’s menu items I ask “Can I buy tamales… tomorrow?” 

“No, sorry, not for sale.”

No.  Of course not.

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About The Author

"Gypsy" is not my real name." A freelance food & travel writer & photographer based in Aylmer, Quebec. Corinna Horton trained at Le Cordon Bleu, spent five years as the owner of Nova Scotia's Dragonfly Inn, and is currently between big, shiny kitchens as she focuses on family and what's next in this delicious life.