A Tamal Day in La Cruz, or How I learned I am Not a Natural Born Tamal Maker

Freshly made tamales with pork, chicken,
and poblano chile with cheese

Tamales are made fresh every Wednesday in La Cruz, Nayarit, by a crew of women who gather together and knock out about 200 tamales in four hours. It is quite a scene to witness, and it was another experience all together to put on my apron and join in.

Tamales have been made since 5,000 to 8,000 BC by Aztecs and other indigenous people of Mesoamerica, using their most common food staple, corn. These women working today, with children underfoot, can most likely trace their matriarchal lineage back several thousand years without a break in tamal production. For those who appreciate history, this is quite a fact to ponder.

When I arrived this morning, potatoes were being peeled, chiles were being cleaned and soaked, and the chicken and pork were already simmering. I took my place at the long table and was handed a potato peeler. I peeled and chopped potatoes, then went to work boning chicken.


Other women were putting the chile sauce together. Re-hydrated chiles guajillo (also known as chiles tenir) chopped onion and garlic, cumin and tomatoes were pureed in a blender with chicken broth to a sauce-like consistency. At the same time, the corn husks were being cleaned and soaked, and some were torn into narrow strips to use for tying the ends of the tamales.

A strong-armed woman started to mix the masa. First, melted lard was mixed with baking powder, a cooking technique I had not encountered before that surprised me. In Mexico, baking powder is called “Royal”, the brand name of a popular baking powder. No wonder I raised eyebrows when I once asked for “polvo de horno” at the store.

Cooked rice was added next. The second surprise — I wasn’t expecting this ingredient and had never read of it in any tamal recipe, but I was told it provided the right consistency to the tamal dough. Finally, six kilos of dry masa and three handfuls of salt were added. Except for the blender, there was not an electrical appliance in sight. Hands and arms did all the work.

Everybody took a place at both sides of the table to work assembly line style. At the head of the table damp corn husks were being separated from a wet bundle and handed to the next person, who patted in a layer of masa. She handed it on to the next woman, who added the filling. It was then handed on to her neighbor, who rolled the tamal into a neat bundle. It then passed on to be tied at both ends. At the bottom of the table, the last woman collected the finished tamales and packed them in a pot.

I didn’t know whether to expect this to be an all-day job or not. It would have taken me about a month to make 200 tamales by myself, but these women were all efficiency and practice.

There were three different fillings: roasted poblano chile strips (rajas) with cheese; chicken cooked in chile sauce; and potatoes with pork cooked in chile sauce.

I wanted to help, but I also wanted to do the least possible damage. Patting just the right amount of masa in just the right place on the corn husk seemed to be a specialized job.

Even adding the filling didn’t look easy. Too much, and it would ooze out when cooked, too little, and the tamal would be skimpy. I didn’t think that making tamales would be such a skilled job, and I was lacking the skills.

I found my place at the bottom of the table, tying strips of husk to secure the tamales. Really, anyone can tie a knot. How could I mess this up? First, I was told I was tying the wrong end. Tie the wide end first, the bottom of the corn husk. OK, I can do this. Then I was told to tie it tighter. By now, I had chile sauce oozing all over the place. My hands were dripping and the husk strips were getting too wet and slick to hold on to. And I was the only one with  a puddle of chile sauce in front of me. Would I be a complete failure? This photo was one of my first attempts. I should have waited another 15 minutes to show you the lago of chile sauce in front of me. But by then, I had chile sauce running down my arms and couldn’t even pick up the camera.

Twenty or thirty or sixty-five tamales later, I had it down pat with only a smidgen of chile sauce oozing out. Can you tell which ones I tied?

By now, tamales were starting to cook, each pot labeled with time and type. The large pot of chicken tamales would cook for 2 hours, the smaller pots of pork tamales and poblano with cheese tamales took 1 hour.

You can come by any Wednesday morning to order your tamales with or without chile. The tamal kitchen is at Monica’s house, located directly across from Estetica Luna Azul on Calle Delfin, one block uphill from Philo’s Club. Place your order and come back at 6 p.m. to pick them up. You can probably just show up at 6 and buy without ordering, but you won’t get any without chile sauce. Enter in a drive-way across from Luna Azul. There will be women seated, ready to sell tamales.

The tamales with chile sauce are not hot, but rather have a savory flavor that permeates the masa. I recommend either the chicken or pork tamales with chile. The tamales with poblano chile and cheese are cooked without chile sauce, lacking that wonderful flavor imbued in the masa. Cost is 11 pesos each. After watching all the labor that went into this, I would say you are getting a bargain.

Notes:

A small Spanish lesson. Despite the common gringo usage of the word “tamale”, this word does not exist in Spanish. Singular is tamal. Plural: tamales.

Tamales are often accompanied by hot atole, a corn-based beverage. For special occasions, champurrado (recipe), a chocolate flavored atole, is served.

Emboldened, I eventually made tamales all by myself — chocolate tamales! Here’s the recipe: Tamales de Chocolate.

“Everyday we are blessed by the saints when we make tamales” ~ one of the tamal makers

 

9 thoughts on “A Tamal Day in La Cruz, or How I learned I am Not a Natural Born Tamal Maker

  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for the great info Kathleen.
    I have been eating these tamales for fifteen years. They are the best I have ever had.

    Russell/Lori

  2. Pingback: Tamales de chocolate por Día de la Candelaria « Cooking in Mexico

  3. I love making tamales.. it is quite tiring when I did it last time took me an entire day and not only mine were not as perfect as these, but I only made like 40, so the work this women do is amazing!!! I am drooling by just seeing these pictures!

  4. Rita Kollock

    Hey Kathleen,

    What a wonderful blog – didn’t know you were so talented. I made tamales at Christmas time with the aid of our Mexican housekeeper many years ago when we were still living in Dallas. Our favorite friends received a packet of 6-12 tamales on Christmas day – depending on size of family. Of course, everyone wanted some more , but it took Teresa and me two days to complete this task. I suggested that everyone go to the Dallas Tortilla Factory to fill any future tamal urges they might have!!!!!!

  5. Wonderful article, very informative hands on description, too. Now I'm hungry, guess I'll have to wait until Weds. to order mine! I did have a tamal party years ago, it is work, but was a success thanks to many helpers, as you so accurately pointed out!

  6. hi sweetie,it seems funny writing this to you when our lives and dialog are entwined on an almost hourly basis and with you sitting only a few feet from me as i type this. your blog is such a great undertaking. you are sharing your skills and knowledge of one of the many great and positive aspects of mexico, in a time when the infrequent negative parts of life here are what what seem to be the choice of the nightly news. mexico's extremely diverse and rich culinary tradition is just one small aspect of "la vida buena" in mexico. for some strange reason it doesn't cross the border well and it is often poorly represented by "mexican" restaurants north of the border. real mexican food is much more than the usual 4 or 5 ingredients in 76 combinations smothered in flavorless cheese. you are a window into the real cuisine and traditions of the myriad of ancient cultures that coexist within mexico's borders. thank you for sharing the mexico we love and what are your true passions and talents—cooking and writing. keep up the great work—which by the way i am SO LUCKY to get a portion or two of before every post. eat your hearts out readers—i think i'll have another tamale ;~)DH

  7. Papawow,If you ever do make tamales by yourself, let me know. I will be most impressed! This is quite an undertaking. Most Mexican families are large, with grandma, mom, aunts and daughters, all pitching in. Many hands make it go by more quickly, with lots of chatter and laughter.

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