Forty hungry people with sticky hands and tamales on their minds rotated through four tables at La Cocina’s Tamalada event last Wednesday evening, learning how to make beef, veggie, chicken, cheese and sweet mango tamales. No wonder this annual December event always sells out in November. Tamales can be intimidating for the novice, and even for a pro are time-consuming and labor intensive. That's the reason behind tamaladas (tamale making parties): share the toil and end up with enough to eat plus a pile to take home for later.
Besides demystifying tamale making (this is the first time I dared to try my hand at filling and rolling the corn meal bundles) the event at La Cocina introduced students to three chefs from different regions of Latin America, each demonstrating their own traditional recipes and techniques that produced a variety of stuffed, steamy bundles.
Tamales, a beloved comfort food served for festivals, birthdays and everyday meals, are a staple at Christmastime. They date back thousands of years, even before the Mayans and Aztecs. The portable, filled buns have fed generations of families (and armies) from Mexico to Argentina. Corn meal wrapped in corn husks, plantain or banana leaves can be filled with almost anything, most commonly with shredded pork, beef or chicken, while sweet tamales feature fruit or raisins and coconut.
Alicia Villanueva of Tamales Los Mayas grew up in Mazatlan and her masa had the consistency of a light play-doh. She demonstrated how to roll it into a ball between two palms and then flatten it by pressing into a roundish shape onto the corn husk and plopping some of her fall-apart-tender cooked beef roast, studded with vegetables on top. Squeeze together the edges of the filled masa in its corn husk wrapper and simply fold the ends or tie up the tamale with a thin strip of corn husk.
Dilsa Lugo of Los Cilantros is from Cuernavaca, Mexico. She told us her secret for achieving fluffy tamales is using fresh lard and explained that each corn husk has a smooth and a scratchy side; you should spread the masa on the smooth side for easier removal after steaming.
The consistency of Dilsa’s masa was totally different than Alicia’s. We used a spoon to smear the sticky masa very thinly on the corn husk, then added two kinds of cheese and topped with tomato, onion and jalapeno. Dilsa, who is sous chef at Copita in Sausalito also does catering. Here is an interview with her by Sarah Henry.
Maria del Carmen Flores, owner of Estrellita’s Snacks is from El Salvador. Her variation on the tamale theme employed cooked--not raw--masa with the vegetables already mixed in. We scooped a big dollop of the masa veggie mixture onto cut rectangles of banana leaves, backed with paper, instead of corn husks, and folded and rolled them up into tight little bundles. She also demonstrated another recipe with chicken and a dozen vegetables, including green beans, zucchini, peas, mushrooms, spinach and green olives.
At the fourth table, demonstrating Alicia’s recipe for sweet mango-filled tamales was Alejandra, another program participant at La Cocina. Alicia adapted her mother’s traditional pineapple and strawberry tamale recipe, which uses a sweet masa made with butter and sugar. Her fluffy mango marvel won Alicia 1st prize at the Alameda County Fair. She shares her recipe with Bay Area Bites readers at the end of this post.
Although enjoyed throughout the year, tamales are an integral part of Mexican Christmas celebrations, most notably the nine day ritual called Las Posadas (meaning “lodgings”), which runs December 16-25, in which a candlelit, costumed procession with musicians, that is said to represent Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn, knocks on the doors of several houses before being welcomed into one home. Songs, piñatas, moles, pozole, hot punch and tamales typically enliven the festivities.
A few days before the Tamalada, BAB spoke with Alicia Villanueava and Maria del Carmen Flores at La Cocina. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Alicia, one of 4 children who grew up in Sinaloa, Mexico, is the only one in her family to move to the US. She came here with her 8-year old son (who is now 20 years old and studying alternative energy at SFSU). Her husband joined them later.
I see your business is centered on tamales. What is your connection to tamales?
Alicia: Tamales bring back beautiful memories from my mom and grandma. Every year, the whole family would get together and cook them. It’s really hard work and takes many hours and dedication because there are so many details. First, you have to prepare the masa and then the fillings. My Grandma would start with the corncobs and a mill to make the masa.
I started cooking and selling tamales just by myself in 2000 but it was more stressful without any permits or anything and I just depended on friends to tell me who was planning a party or else I walked the streets knocking on doors, offering tastes of my tamales.
Then I realized I needed more help so I went to The Women’s Initiative. And my teacher referred me to La Cocina in 2010 and this was the most heavenly place. I am so happy. La Cocina made my dream come true. Now I have five women working for me. They make about 400 tamales a day in La Cocina’s kitchen. The Hobart mixer and the professional steamer are my angels. I can steam 400 tamales in 30 minutes compared to 5 hours it would take on a small stove.
Tell me about the Tamalada tradition in your family. Is it just women who make the tamales?
Alicia: Not just women, men make them too. When you’re making tamales everyone wants to participate. Our Tamaladas would take a whole day. There were 10 of us family and friends, and my grandmother would dole out the tasks. When I was little, I enjoyed all the smells of cooking. It’s not just about cooking, but talking and solving problems together as a family. And everyone goes home with lots of tamales that last for days.
Where can we find your tamales now?
Alicia: I used to sell at Justin Herman Plaza but I found a new place at SOMA Streat Food -- every day. And I do catering and festivals. My big goal is to have a restaurant. I’m working on my second business plan with La Cocina. Maybe in the Financial District, but I’m open; God will find the right place.
For the interview with Maria del Carmen Flores, La Cocina’s Azalea Perez Olivares kindly acted as interpreter
Maria is from El Salvador and started making tamales with her father when she was six years old. She described some differences:
Maria: In Mexico, they use raw masa, while we use cooked. And our fillings are different, like one with chicken, potato, green olives and chickpeas. The vegetarian I made up because there are so many vegetarians here. Since tamale making is so labor intensive, it’s great for parties. We talk, teach and learn in a group from each other. I started making them here in my kitchen in 2003 and sold them on street corners in San Francisco. It was hard because I had to hide from the police. Then I found La Cocina and now I sell at Alemany Farmers Market, Civic Center Farmers Market and do catering.
I know your business name Estrellita means little stars and I see you have gold inlay stars on your teeth too. Can I ask why all the stars?
Maria: Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a superstar on TV. Thank God I could accomplish that through my food.
(Then with a little prompting from Azalea, Maria tells me how her other dream came true too. She has a part in the new Woody Allen film that was recently shot in San Francisco. She was “discovered” on the corner of south Van Ness and 14th wearing a typical dress from El Salvador, when apparently she was noticed by film people scouting for extras. They asked her to be in Allen’s movie and she filmed a scene in which Cate Blanchett asks her for a key to an apartment.)
Don’t miss another Tamalada at La Cocina. They have already scheduled next year’s class. Put it on your calendar: December 11, 2013.
Recipe: ALICIA'S MANGO TAMALES
Makes 30-40 tamales, depending on the size you make
40 - 60 dried corn husks* (this includes extra, in case some tear)
10 pounds maseca* (corn flour)
10 sticks unsalted butter, let soften at room temperature 2-3 hours
6 cups white sugar
6 pounds frozen mango (Whole Foods brand is best) let thaw at room temperature about 2hrs
4 14-oz.cans condensed milk
*Can find in Mexican markets or Mexican food aisle of most large markets
In a large pan, cover corn husks with water and boil for 30 min.
Combine 3 pounds of thawed mango and 2 cans of condensed milk in blender. Blend until smooth.
In a large bowl, put the 10 pounds of maseca, 8 sticks softened butter, 4 cups sugar and the blended mango/milk cream from Step 2.
For traditional “grandmother method,” mix well with your hands 40-60 minutes until it becomes a smooth paste. OR you can mix it using an electric mixer with a big enough bowl for 15-20 minutes.
On the stove in a medium pot, put in remaining 2 sticks of softened butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 pounds of thawed mango and 2 cans condensed milk. Heat on high for 5 minutes, uncovered, then cook slowly at medium-low for another 30 minutes, stirring constantly so filling does not stick to pan.
To Assemble the Tamales:
To assemble tamales, take about a 1/4 cup of masa and roll it in a smooth ball between your palms. Then press it onto the softened corn husk leaving about 1/2 inch border along the sides and 2-inch border on top and bottom for folding.
Top center of masa with about 2 Tablespoons of mango filling.
Gently fold one long side of the corn husk to the other, making make a tight bundle, then fold up the pointed end of the corn husk,leaving other end open. If you wish, use a thin strip of corn husk to tie it up and look pretty. Lay each tamale folded-side down while you finish the rest.
Once the tamales are folded, fill a large steamer with water just below the fill line and place the steam tray on the rack.
Carefully place each tamale standing up on the steamer, open ends up and cook covered for 90 min. (If you don’t have a steamer, you can use a large pot with a steamer basket, just make sure water is below tamales, so that they don’t get wet and check every 15 minutes so that water does not boil away). Turn the gas to high until water boils then turn it down to medium-low. (After 90 minutes, masa should be firm and pull away easily from corn husk, if it is sticky, carefully re-wrap and steam some more.)
Remove each tamale with tongs and let rest for a few minutes before serving as a delicious dessert for lunch or dinner or even breakfast.