Oaxaca mural

Oaxaca mural

Friday, November 20, 2015

A "Tamalada" of Sorts

The making of tamales is a very laborious task.  I would dare say that it is more difficult than other complex dishes such as "chiles en nogada" or "mole poblano".  For this reason it is traditional for families to have a big get-together known as a "tamalada".  Each person is given a task in a sort of production line of making the tamales.

Last Saturday Alejandro took me to his parents' home to help make tamales.  I don't know if it would be considered a "tamalada" since there were only three of us... Alejandro, his mom, and I.  For me, it was certainly an interesting experience, and I gained a great deal of respect for anyone who makes tamales.

First Alejandro and I went to the neighborhood marketplace.  His mom had made up a list of ingredients that we needed for the fillings for the tamales.  We were going to make three kinds of tamales... chicken in green sauce, strips of poblano pepper with cheese and an herb called "epazote", and sweet tamales with raisins and blackberry marmalade.

We then went to a "molino"... a business which grinds flour, peppers or spices to order.  This place has been in operation for more than forty years, and Alejandro can remember going there as a child.

We had them grind six kilos of the special corn flour that is used to make tamales.

We also purchased there a couple bags of the dried corn husks which are used to wrap the tamales.

Back at the house Alejandro's mother prepared the ingredients for the fillings, while Alejandro began making the "masa" or dough.

First, he emptied a bag of pork lard into a large plastic basin.

He then worked the lard with his hands until it was soft.

Next the corn flour was slowly added and thoroughly mixed with the lard.

His mom then added leavening to the mixture.

At this point a third of the dough was put into a separate bowl for making the sweet tamales.   Chicken broth was added to the big basin for the savory tamales.  I was finally put to work mixing this gooey dough with my hands.  The "masa" has to be thoroughly mixed and aerated.  I think I was working on this for a half hour or more.

When a blob of dough will float in a glass of water, you know that it is finally ready.

Meanwhile, Alejandro was working with the dough for the sweet tamales.  Instead of chicken broth, water was added.  Sugar and raisins were also mixed into the dough.  Food coloring was added so that one could differentiate between the sweet and the savory tamales.

Alejandro's mom took the corn husks and soaked them in a pail of water so that they would be pliable.

With the dough ready and the corn husks soaked, it was finally time to assemble the tamales.
A large dollop of dough is placed on the inside of a corn husk.

Then a spoonful of filling is put on top of the dough.

The corn husk is then wrapped around the dough and filling.  We made dozens and dozens of tamales until we used up all the "masa" and fillings.  Alejandro assembled the sweet tamales, his mom put together those with strips of peppers and cheese, and I assembled the chicken with salsa tamales.  It took me a little while to master the process.

The tamales are then placed in a large special steamer. 

They are steamed for a couple of hours.  It was 10:00 P.M. before the tamales were done.

A couple of things to point out to those who are unfamiliar with tamales...

The singular of "tamales" is "tamal".  There is no such a word as "tamale" in Spanish.

Also, remove the corn husk before eating the "tamal".  You may laugh, but I actually knew someone who tried to eat a "tamal" corn husk and all!


  1. Someone tried to eat a tamal with corn husk and all? Unbelievable. This must have been a great experience for you and I'm glad you liked it, I had never imagined seeing a gringo making tamales and I can say I liked it. My mother and my sisters make tamales, but I have never, never participated. But your post has inspired me... maybe I'll join them the next time they set up a tamalada. ¡Saludos!

    1. Jajaja..."never imagined seeing a gringo making tamales."

      Too funny!

      Kim G

    2. Hola, Tino,
      Yes, this old gringo had his hands in the "masa" making tamales. It was fun, but I was tired by the time we were done. You should definitely join in the next family "tamalada". I'm sure they would happily put you to work mixing that dough!

  2. Very interesting. I think I'll sort of second Tino's comment. My experience has been that this is "women's work," but I guess you and Alejandro aren't trapped in outdated stereotypes.

    In all seriousness, I have been near tamaladas, but never close enough to really understand how they were made. So thanks for enlightening me!


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we doubt we'll ever do this ourselves.

    1. Hey, Alejandro and I are modern guys that aren't afraid to put on an apron! ¡Ja ja! Actually, I think I've heard that in some families the guys do the mixing of the dough since it requires a strong arm.
      I know I will NEVER attempt to make them by myself. Too much work to do solo!

    2. By the way, Alejandro says that it is common to give the man the job of mixing the "masa". In fact a man with muscular arms is said to have the arms of a "tamalero".