For British people it might be custard or a full English breakfast of fried eggs and toast with beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and sausages. For French Canadians it might be ragoût de boulettes (meatball stew) or tourtière (meat pie). Americans might long for mom’s apple pie. And Germans for a fat wurst and sauerkraut.
But for Mexicans, it’s tamales.
Tamales are composed of masa (corn meal based wet dough) and a filling, wrapped in a corn husk (though in parts of Central America they use a banana leaf). They may be filled with vegetables, pork, chicken, beef, and even with sugar, cinnamon, cheese and raisins, pineapple, and other fruits.
Tamales requires a lot of work to make and says, Laly Cholak who made these with her Mexican mother, they are filled with love. “Families make them together,” she explains. “Everyone sits and talks while we assemble them. There’s always lots of laughter.”
A tamelada at the Witte Museum
So Laly has brought her seven-year-old son Troy to the wonderful Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas, where he and I are about to experience our first Tamalada, a tamale-making gathering, along with about 20 others. The Witte, a wonderfully creative museum, offers all sorts of interesting programs.
We start by preparing the masa. To cornmeal we add lard, ancho water and a good deal of elbow grease. This is spread on corn husks to form the case. The bean filling has already been cooked but I happily toss ancho chili and a generous sprinkling of ground cumin into my beans.
A dollop of this goes on top of the masa, then the corn husk is rolled to create a neat little parcel, which is tied with a thin strip of husk. I’m very pleased with myself when I finish rolling my seventh little tamale; it’s only taken me about 30 minutes. Not bad, I think.
Imagine my consternation to discover that families make dozens of these little gems so I would probably be responsible for making several dozen. Experienced tamale makers can turn out 25 dozen in an hour!
Troy may be seven but he quickly becomes adept. Looking very professional, I watch him sample his masa to see if it needs any seasoning. “Are you sure this is your first time?” I ask. It is. And I’m feeling less confident of my abilities.
My little mound of tamales goes into the pot to steam, along with those of the two dozen other participants in the tamalada. Between us all, we’ve barely made enough to feed ourselves, let alone a whole family!
Because tamales are so labour intensive, they have become special occasion fare, especially at Christmas. Usually the women gather and make hundreds at a time. But you can buy them in Mexican markets for about $9 a dozen. That’s not nearly enough for the amount of work entailed in making these little gems!
My first bite of my very own tamale is a revelation. It neatly unwraps to a zesty, fragrant little bundle of beans and corn masa. “They’re delicious freshly made but I love warming the leftovers on a griddle for breakfast. Especially the sweet ones,” says Laly. Troy can barely stop eating long enough to reply to my question, “Yes, I really like it,” he mumbles.
Tamale Festival at The Pearl
Later that day I try the professionally made versions at the Tamale Festival at The Historic Pearl District.
Professionally made tamale wrapped in a banana leaf.
This remarkable new development in San Antonio encompasses the most recent incarnation of the Culinary Institute of America (the CIA) along with a dozen or so fabulous restaurants covering a wide gamut of food styles. Anchoring the whole is Hotel Emma, the hotel built within the structure of the old Pearl Brewery for which the district has been named.
The Emma is the ultimate in industrial chic, incorporating boutique style hospitality with elements from the handsome old building along with the equipment and tanks which once made this one of the most successful breweries in Texas.
But how were the professional tamales? Though I have to confess they were bigger and plumper, they weren’t a patch on my little efforts. Would I lie?