Making Tamales Can Be as Fun as Eating Them

Story by Roxann Wedegartner | Photos by Dominic Perri

It’s tamalada time!

What time is that?

Any time you feel like having a great party where friends can gather together and make tamales This gathering is called a tamalada, and it is steeped in ritual and tradition. Aztec, Maya, and Inca women accompanied their men into battle to serve as cooks. Their ingenuity may have produced the first “to go” food in the tamal (singular for tamales).

Tamaladas generally occur during the fall in preparation for the holidays, when primarily the women in the family meet to share gossip and the duties of making dozens—sometimes hundreds—of tamales. The rest of the family and friends see to it that the music plays and the beer and margaritas flow.

I grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I met my husband and became a cog in an annual tamalada gathering. My mother-in-law, Alice, was a wonderful cook only surpassed by her maid and cook, Maria. Put the two of them in a kitchen together and you knew everyone was going to eat well for days.

Early in November before Thanksgiving and with a freezer stocked with freshly killed venison, duck, and quail from my father-in-law’s hunting trips, Alice would announce the tamalada to her friends. They showed up willingly, bringing their own favorite tamale fillings. Alice and Maria took charge, provided the masa, husks, and more fillings; she gave the orders, and we obeyed. Soon everyone was making tamales, talking a blue streak, and sipping bourbon or margaritas. Miraculously after several hours, the stack of tamales were ready to be steamed and then taken home to enjoy.

Here in this Valley I have established my own tamalada tradition and so can you. While a tamalada can happen any time of year, I like to stay with my Tex-Mex tradition and do it in the fall when the harvest from our own gardens and local farms is still abundant and fresh, especially our corn. Here’s how you do it.

The Plan

For a successful tamalada, invite at least five to 10 people––enough people to share the work and the fun. Put someone in charge of soaking and handing out the corn husks, have a couple of people spread the masa on the corn husks and pass them off to a couple of other people for filling. Next, have your most obsessive, detail-oriented people in charge of properly folding the husks around the filling, a very critical step. Someone else needs to oversee the steaming. Let the music play––live or CD––and pour the drinks. My favorite tamalada music is anything by Freddie Fender or Los Lobos, but then that’s the tejana in me.

For utensils and cookware, have spatulas or any type of spreaders, mixing bowls for the masa and the fillings, a large pot or container for soaking the husks, and steam pots or any large, deep pot with an expandable steam basket placed inside for steaming the tamales.

The Tamales

Almost anything can be put into tamales. So meat lovers, vegetarians, and vegans can all join the party. The basic filling ingredients of traditional tamales are meats, vegetables, fruits, cheese, and chilies. Think pulled chicken or pork, venison, duck, beef, turkey, tofu, squash, onion, corn, poblano and jalapeño chilies, pumpkin, raisins, cooked beans … the list is endless. It’s fun to have more than one filling type available. Corn masa and corn husks make up the casing (though some Latin American regions use banana leaves). Some recipes also call for a sauce, but others simply rely on the filling being moist enough. When saucing, go with a two-to-one ratio of filling to sauce. The trick is to not make the filling too moist or you’ll have soggy tamales.

As the host, plan to have at least the one batch of masa prepared before the party. I highly recommend Maseca-brand instant corn masa flour, which can be purchased locally. The instant version is really a must for easy preparation. Do not use cornmeal or regular corn flour. They are made from a different type of corn and will not work.

Lard, never butter or vegetable shortening, is an essential ingredient for the masa. If you are vegetarian or vegan and don’t want to compromise, solid coconut oil can be substituted for lard. The masa must be moist. How much masa you prepare depends on how big a tamalada you’re throwing!

The Assembly: Spreading, Filling, Folding, and Steaming.

Corn husks need to be soaked in hot water for 45 minutes before use. To fill, lay the husk on a flat surface with the rough side down, smooth side up. Then, on the smooth side, spread the masa to approximately ¼ inch in thickness on the husk nearly to the edges of the sides and the flat end, leaving a little more space on the tapered end. Don’t overfill as the filling needs to get completely encased in the masa and husk. Once filled, fold the sides in on one another, slightly overlapping. Then fold the tapered end up to seal the bottom. Some people like to have narrow strips of husks or cotton twine handy to tie a neat sash around the tamal.

If you’re using more than one type of filling, keep the tamales separated before steaming them. Once wrapped, they look the same. You can put them into marked plastic freezer bags. Tamales freeze well whether or not they’ve been pre-steamed.

To steam the tamales, place a layer of corn husks in the bottom of the steaming pot, layer the tamales in there gently and cover with another layer of husks. Cover the pot, bring water to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 45–60 minutes.

A fan of cooking good food for family and friends all her adult life, Roxann Wedegartner is a former assistant food editor of the Houston Chronicle.  See some of her writing and recipes on her Facebook page Food Tales.

Get the full recipe for the tamales here

Sources for Special Ingredients

Masa: Ecuador Andino in Hadley or in many grocery stores

Lard: Ecuador Andino, Sutter Meats

Corn husks: Ecuador Andino, Foster’s Market (Greenfield)