The signs can be seen everywhere across Mexico announcing that you can get one of those little homemade gems at a local casa, or roadside stand. It is a welcome site if you’ve been driving all day and need to get something in your stomach.
Sometimes, as is the case in Oaxaca, people even have their specific street corners where they are always selling them late at night along with a cup of atole. Quite possibly, the small tamale stand, with them keeping warm in an old ice chest, is the world’s oldest micro-business.
But make no mistake, despite their humble beginnings years ago, tamales, carb laden sometimes protein packed delicacies, belong on every foodies must try list as you travel across the great country of Mexico.
One of my favorite tamale stories took place in the late 1990’s.
The sun had set hours earlier on what was essentially a migrant village I was visiting three hours south of Ensenada. That meant no light at night, unless you “borrowed” it from the local village power pole. Not wanting to be too obvious, my friends who were hosting me only felt comfortable taking enough juice for two light bulbs.
I was there to help a group of friends from the mountains of Oaxaca who were working primarily in the strawberry fields of the San Quintin Valley. In addition to my three helpers, there were 15-20 people with me from rural Oregon.
Our dinner that night was a mountain of tamales. Here’s how Wikipedia describes a tamale… “A tamale is a traditional MesoAmerican dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper.”
Unfortunately, that description does not do this wonderful creation justice. Starchy dough? Boiled? Leaf wrapper? Really? Could they have made a tamale sound any less appealing?
A tamal [the proper name in the singular form] is a wonderful balance of semi sweet corn meal and filling that when done correctly, just oozes flavor, comfort and history as you consume it. Originating hundreds of years before Jesus, the tamal was a staple of the Aztec Empire across Mexico.
Today, tamales are staples at celebrations in both the US and Mexico. I know one Japanese Church in Los Angeles that gets a group of women together every Thanksgiving to make about a thousand tamales to give away. And that leaf wrapper? Well, in some areas its a corn husk, elsewhere, it is a banana leaf.
Whether it is filled with cheese, meat, veggies or even fruit, like pineapple or strawberries, the tamale, long part of the Mexican culinary hierarchy, is now also standard fare on many US dinner tables.
One of the beauties of the tamal back in the day, was the fact that it was portable. Aztec workers and warriors could take them with them when they traveled, or went off to hunt or fight. It is much the same today, especially in Mexico City, albeit with a twist. Today, you can find that tamal served on a bun called a bolillo. It’s known as either a torta de tamal [a tamale sandwich] or a guajolota. And just like the Aztec of long ago, the workers of today love the simplicity and portability of this culinary classic.
Pass by any Metro Subway station that serves the working man in the early morning, and you can get one of these, loaded with salsa and maybe with a hot coffee for 15 pesos, or about a buck.
That night in the San Quintin Valley, like I always do when I am hosting a group, I went around to make sure everyone liked the food that was made by my friends. They loved them. The flavor of chicken, pork and rajas was something these folks from the rural northwest had never experienced before, their primary Mexican option having been Taco Bell.
And then I got the most interesting of comments. “Dave” one of the people said, “the flavor is fantastic, but the skins are a little tough!” At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. And then it hit me. This group of people, who were not city folks, were eating the husks.
In all their Taco Bell like experience, they had no idea tamales were cooked in, and typically served in a corn husk. They just assumed that was part of the package. Honestly, it was all I could do not to laugh once I figured it out.
I was reminded of that night recently when I saw this story about former US President Gerald Ford visiting the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas back in 1976. In what became known as the “Great Tamale Incident”, Ford, like my friends, was just about to eat a tamal that was still wrapped in the corn husk.
One of the joys of traveling off the beaten track in Mexico is food! You’ll get stuff on your plate you’ll never get anywhere else. And while you might at first resist, all I can say is… don’t!
Be brave, dive in and experience a little of My Mexico. But be smart. If what you’re looking at is something you’ve never seen or experienced, take a deep breath, swallow your pride, and ask your hosts how you are supposed to eat what’s in front of you.
That way you’ll make sure you won’t be eating tamales like an Otter Pop, squeezing them out of some sort of “tough” skin!
Want more info? Here’s a great article from Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America.