When I was about nine years old, my Tia Gloria taught me how to spread super sticky masa onto floppy corn husks (hojas) to get them ready for filling and folding. She was one of eight sisters, and together we and a handful of my cousins would make many dozens of tamales every Christmas.
And I didn’t even like tamales.
I liked everything around the tamales – the coordinated making of them, the serving of them, the music that came after you ate them, and even better, the presents that followed. But the tamales themselves were not the big shining glory of the holiday for me. They, meaning either my grandmother or one of my aunts, made the pork filling in a spicy chile sauce, and the heat burned out my ability to taste anything else. The chile-cheese tamales did nothing to fix this. And the dessert tamales we made – raisin and cinnamon – weren’t even acknowledged. Not a fan of raisins. Never have been.
Being in charge of my own tamale destiny is a bit of reclamation. I now get to enjoy both sides of the process, since I make the fillings to my taste, and sometimes to everyone else’s (one hopes anyway). The pork is a simple recipe – eight pounds of pork, browned, and then stewed with a large can of Las Palmas chile sauce (medium heat), a bay leaf, and a little extra salt to cook for about four hours or until it falls apart into strings. Plenty of flavor without the mouth numbing sting of super hot chile. You can do the same thing to chicken or beef, but given the choice, I’ll go pig every time.
The masa is the easiest part – I buy it premade. When I was living more eastside LA, I’d get it from La Paloma in Duarte. Now that I’m down Highland Park way, I get it from Super A’s panaderia counter. Comes in six pound bags. They say two pounds makes a dozen tamales. I bought about 18 pounds a got about seven dozen since I tend to apply it a teensy bit thicker.
Masa is messy. It’s corn flour, lard, salt, and baking powder – emphasis on the lard. It’s like pudding and playdough got together and made a blobby sticky baby. It is the tamale maker’s job to mold that mess into a wonderful food – a neat little corn envelope filled with rich meats, cheeses, and big flavor. But making tamales by yourself is, well, a dreary and messy business. It’s a community food. It’s meant to be made by many hands. And it has rules. The big rule in our family was if you help make, you get to take.
Amy came by first, so we started with a fun experiment – Mexican Chocolate tamales. One pound of masa gets ¼ cup of cocoa, ½ cup sugar, and two tablespoons of cinnamon. Spreading onto hojas, sprinkle with chocolate chips, steam for an hour. It’s like a firm Mexican chocolate corn pudding. Or an eatable champurrado. I guess we could call it chompurrado then. I’m here all week!
Amy is quite possibly the only person in Los Angeles who learned how to make tamales before she actually ate one. I gave her an assignment prior to coming over to have at least one chicken, one pork, and one chile cheese so that she knew what we were aiming for. It being the holidays, she hadn’t quite gotten around to it. So we remedied her lack of tamale tasting immediately after making the first batch of chocolate and pork tamales.
My sister joined us a little later – just in time for another masa run. Amy and I had been using these new fangled masa spreaders all morning (worth every penny). One of the more tedious tasks in tamale making is spreading that ¼ inch thick coating of sticky masa onto the slippery hoja. We were all taught how to do it with the backs of spoons. Last year, I graduated the spoon to a rubber spatula, but saw little improvement. Then when I went to the Super A, I watched the masa spreader video.
I love the masa spreader. Amy and I zoomed through the first four dozen in a little over an hour – unheard of. The thought of spackling that many hojas with the back of a spoon gave me shivers. The masa spreader made it so incredibly easy. Sistergirl scoffed and asked for a spatula and then tossed that and reverted to the old spoon technique.
The only thing missing, for me anyway, was the sound of family. Kids. Preferably getting in the way just enough for them to get interested in what we were doing so we could teach them how to do it. That’s how the tias sucked you in. It’s a time honored tradition. And the subsequent years after you learn, you’re no longer allowed to run off and play. Once you have the tamale knowledge, you’re in the club in the kitchen, spreading masa, filling them up, and watching the pots, looking wistfully out the window at your lost childhood being wasted by younger cousins who don’t have any idea what they’re in for. Last year’s willing victim was my little cousin, Nacho, pictured here. Note the innocence and curiosity! Note my knowing spiderlady smile! Why yes, Nacho, this IS fun. Wanna try?
As if reading my mind from Monrovia, friend Eric brought over his son Conrad post-holiday shopping to become the next young tamale victim. Conrad’s comment – can I poke at it? Eric’s comment – oh, it’s like spackling drywall! Yes, ManEric! But without the annoying sanding and painting afterward – assuming you managed to keep the masa on your worktable. And bonus! You get to eat. Both guys rolled up their sleeves admirably, the son outpacing the dad in no time. I tasked C-man with making at least five – thinking that this was the magical number that would qualify him for the “you make you take” clause. They finished off their haul later that evening.
You can get prepared masa anywhere in L.A., and usually alongside the hojas and down the aisle from all the filling ingredients in any good Mexican panaderia, carneceria, or general market. Also, it’s key to remember the masa is just a base – you can add any flavoring you want. Pineapple works and is traditional. Add some of the juice from your meat filling to the masa to give it a savory punch. I usually plan on experimenting with at least a dozen or two to try new flavors out – this year I soaked the raisins in sugar and rum – the leftovers have been happily drizzled over ice cream two nights in a row, much to SJ’s delight.
If you’ve never made tamales before, I suggest finding someone to teach you. One, it’s more fun. Two, there are a lot of little things about making tamales that a blog or a video can’t teach you – how to tell the difference between the smooth side of the hoja and the rough side, how much masa is enough, how you know it’s done cooking, etc.
Feliz navidad, mis pretties. See you next year!