Hippo Manchester
December 22, 2005

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Food: It’s not Christmas without tamales

Latin-American tradition is a corn-husk-wrapped treat

By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

The first tamale I ever ate was a divine pleasure.

Unwrap the cornhusk and the aroma is a pleasant combination of sweet and spicy. Inside the husk is a light spongy masa filled with steaming hot meat.

I have eaten tamales of every shape and flavor, in styles from all around Latin America. Whether wrapped in dried corn husks, avocado or banana leaves, filled with chicken, pork, or chocolate, this traditional Christmas treat sends families to either buy the tamales in bulk or mass-produce them in assembly-line fashion in their kitchens or church halls.

During the holiday season, José Rodriguez estimates he will sell hundreds of tamales, advertised by a simple hand-written sign on the door of his restaurant “hay tamales.”

His wife Patricia is busy most days this month soaking cornhusks, beating the masa and making the pork filling. At their restaurant El Mexicano Jr on Wilson Street in Manchester, the Rodriguez’s sell two kinds of tamales: pork with red sauce and pork with a green tomatillo sauce.

Each tamale costs $1.25, a steal considering all the labor involved.

First, it is important to use the right masa. It seems everyone has a favorite. For the sake of speed, Rodriguez uses an instant masa that takes only 30 minutes to mix, rather than several hours.

Fresh tamale masa is available at Latino markets, such as I & P across the street from Rodriguez’s restaurant. Tamale masa is finer than tortilla masa because it’s ground three or four times, while tortilla masa is ground only once. This is important to the finished product.

Before I arrived in the kitchen at El Mexicano Jr., Patricia had the masa beating in an industrial size mixer with cornhusks soaking in water nearby.

The basic assembly: prepare the masa, spread it on the cleaned and soaked corn husks, add a heaping tablespoon of red pork chili, wrap and steam them. It is labor-intensive and really works best with an assembly line of friends or family each with a specific job to do.

Once completed, the tamales steam for approximately one hour. Anything goes when it comes to the filling, but cooks experimenting with flavors need to remember the intense steaming process. Seafood will get rubbery; nuts such as pecans and walnuts will not hold up and for dessert tamales less sugar is better. You will know your tamales are done when the masa pulls cleanly away from the husk. If it doesn’t, simply re-wrap and let the batch steam for a few more minutes.

The way a tamale is wrapped is traditionally an indicator of the type of tamale. Red pork chili tamales, the most common, use the fold-over method with an open end and stand the tamales up right in the steamer.