The Tamalada Girls, toasting with some yummy sparkling wine from South Coast Winery.

Everyone was so busy! Look at that concentration!

It's no secret by now, that food is the center of our family gatherings at least 90% of the time. Our family, especially when I was  young, would spend days preparing for them. There are so many foods from my childhood that I eat now that are associated with wonderful familial memories.

One of those family food traditions was the annual tamale making marathon every Christmas. As an adult, I've long since given up trying to find prepared tamales that rival my family's. And try as I might, I have never been able to duplicate my folks tasty treats – Dad doesn't write down his recipes. He never has. So I've come up with my own versions that come close to my parent's tamales and over the years I have periodically shared them with friends through tamaladas – or tamale-making parties.

A couple of weekends ago, I held the first one in more than 5 years. We had a great time. I brought together a couple of gals that don't often see each other and everyone had a chance to learn, make their own tamales and take part in a tradition that's been in my family since before I was born.

TAKE SHORTCUTS WHEN APPROPRIATE: I do take some shortcuts, not because of a lack of knowledge but rather a lack of time. I'd much rather spend the time making delicious molé. To that end, I buy prepared masa from a great local authentic Mexican restaurant. If you live in San Diego proper, I highly recommend buying it from El Indio. You just need to call 24hrs in advance to order it. They sell red masa (masa that has chili powder added) or white (plain masa) and they come in 5 and 10lb tubs. 10 lbs is what I recommend if you are making both of these recipes. It should yield you at least 60 tamales. I buy the white for sweet tamales but for regular meat tamales I prefer the added depth of flavor that comes from using the red chili infused masa. Make sure you request PREPARED masa as they also sell the unprepared ground masa which has no shortening and no leavening in it. If you've never made tamales before, you wouldn't know what to look for between prepared and unprepared masa. Spending hours making these tasty morsels only to mistakenly use unprepared masa means you'll end up with unedible rocks for tamales. A huge waste of time, money and effort! I've done it by accident. Learn from my mistake! :)

BUT IF YOU PREFER: I'm also including my recipe for the masa if you choose to make it from scratch. I seriously recommend a stand mixer such as a KitchenAid rather than using a hand mixer or – heaven for bid! – mixing by hand. Alas! I've seen so many recipes that say 'mix the dough until it forms a thick paste like peanut butter.' No, no, no. It should be light and airy like whipped butter or whipped cream cheese. The secret to a great tamale is in the masa first and foremost. It's the first thing people see and cut into, the first thing they taste. If the masa is tough or hard like a tortilla, you'll lose your audience. It should be like a slightly dense but still very moist artisanal bread when steamed properly. And it shouldn't be too thick. When assembling the tamale, lay the masa down no thicker than a 1/4". Trust me, it'll expand. Any thicker than that and you get a masa tamale with a little meat instead of a tamale balanced in flavor and texture. The former will chase people away, the latter, convert those who weren't previously fans of tamales. 

My family makes 3 kinds of tamales every year: chicken, beef and pork. For my event, I chose to make chicken and pork. I showed the girls how to assemble then left them to it while I kept washing husks, keeping the ingredients flowing, steaming and bagging the fruits of our combined efforts.

If your local grocery store doesn't have some of the ingredients, you can order them online from MexGrocer.com. They even have tamale making kits!

You'll need plenty of corn husks. Most grocery stores sell them in the ethnic foods /mexican foods aisle but if you can't find them at yours, you can check them out at MexGrocer.com as well. About two hours before you're ready to start assembling, boil water, place the husks in a large tub or ice chest (I use my large igloo cooler) and pour the boiling water over them to cover. This might take several pots of boiling water to cover. This will make the husks pliable. When you're ready to use them, take a handful over to the sink, and working in batches as needed, rinse the husks under warm water removing any leftover silk.

Also, I highly recommend NOT  substituting the California chili powder for the spice jars merely labeled 'chili powder' or 'chili powder blend.' This mole, as most moles and red chili (chili colorado) that aren't made from whole dried chili's, should only be made with the distinct flavor you get from California chili powder. It has the right blend of regional chili found in Mexican foods. You can get relatively inexpensive packets from your grocery store where they have the Mexican spices packaged in small plastic bags or you can get it from most bulk food stores (I buy mine at Smart & Final).

In addition to the items in the masa and filling recipes, you'll also need
• 4 green bell peppers, sliced thinly
• 4 medium sized russet potatoes, peeled and cut like french fries
• 2-3 cans whole pitted olives 
• 1/2 lb Monterey Jack cheese, cut french-fry style.

Masa Harina Tamale
6 cups Masa Harina
3 ½ cups warm chicken broth

2 cups lard

2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon California Chili powder
1 tablespoon New Mexico Chili powder

In a bowl, mix masa harina (you can also use this style of masa harina), baking powder, paprika, cumin and chili until well blended. In a separate bowl, beat the lard and salt using an electric mixer at medium speed until combined. It should be light, airy and fluffy. Using a KitchenAid is preferred to a hand mixer because you can get more air incorporated into the mixture. Slowly add broth and Masa

 Harina a few cups at a time. Beat at medium speed until dough is a smooth like whipped butter. You can test the masa by dropping a spoonful into a glass of water. If it's done, it will float. You don't want to over beat as this will result in tough, hard masa. Cover and refrigerate for an hour.

Pork Filling
7 lb pork butt roast, prefer boneless

For mole: 1/3 cup California chili powder
 3 tablespoons New Mexico chili powder
 96 oz. chicken broth
 2 tablespoon. plus 2 teaspoons ground cumin
 2 heaping tablespoons garlic powder
 1 teaspoon sea salt
 1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
 half a disk of Ibarra Mexican chocolate
 6 heaping tablespoons flour
 ¾ cup cold water
 vegetable or olive oil for frying as needed

Seasoning Mix for frying pork: 1 cup flour
 3 tablespoons sea salt
 2 tablespoons black pepper
 3 tablespoons ground cumin
 2 tablespoons California chili powder
 2 tablespoons New Mexico chili powder
 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons garlic powder

Cut the pork into 1 inch or so cubes trimming off as much fat as possible.

Place a large skillet on medium heat. Add vegetable oil to cover bottom of pan.

Add all the ingredients for the seasoning mix into a Ziplock baggie and mix well. Working in small batches, add a couple handfuls of the cubed pork and shake well. Using your hand, pick up the flour covered meat and shake off excess flour, place carefully into the frying pan and brown. Pull out the browned pork and drain on paper towels. Continue until all pork is browned.

While meat is browning, fill a stock pot with the broth, chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, salt, chicken bouillon and chocolate. Heat to boiling then cover and simmer on low. Before adding meat, taste the mole and adjust seasoning if needed.

When all meat has been browned, carefully add to the boiling sauce. Partially cover and cook for 3 hours on low stirring occasionally.

After 3 hours, combine the 3/4 cup cold water and the 6 tablespoons of flour with a whisk until well blended. Turn the heat up on the meat and when it's boiling, slowly add the flour mixture whisking as you add it to avoid lumps. When all the flour mixture is added, stir the pork well to incorporate making a nice thick gravy. Continue a slow boil while stirring for 5 minutes. Then turn off heat.

When meat is cooled, refrigerate until you are ready to make the tamales or proceed to the tamale making so long as the meat mixture is completely cooled.

For the Chicken tamales:
Rinse a whole chicken removing the giblets. Stuff three peeled garlic cloves and a half onion into the cavity. Place in stock pot, add water to cover. Place the other half of the onion in the water along with 2 bay leaves, 3 tablespoons salt, 3 garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 1 chopped carrot, 1 chopped celery stick. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until the meat falls off the bone, about 1 hour. Remove from broth and let cool. Once cooled, de-bone and shred the chicken.

Assembling the tamales

For the chicken tamales:
Lay the husk in the palm of your hand, wide end towards you. Place a heaping tablespoon or tablespoon and-a-half of masa on the husk and smooth to cover the middle. Layer some chicken, an olive, a slice of green pepper, a potato and the cheese onto the masa.

Wrap the tamale by bringing up the sides and rolling them like you would if you were making a burrito. If the sides don't quite over lap, grab a smaller husk and, add a dab of masa to act as "glue" over the "seam" and place the extra husk over it to seal.

Gently squeeze the ends so that you create a nice fat tamale. Careful NOT to twist. You're just squeezing the contents towards the center freeing the ends so that you can tie them.

Tie the ends with culinary grade string and trim so that you have nice short, neat ends.

Repeat the process for the pork tamales omitting the cheese. Be sure to put enough of the mole "gravy" onto the tamale so the tamale isn't too dry. Usually enough room for 3 or four chunks of the pork.

Once you're ready to steam, get a nice big steamer (like this one), put a several inches of water to just touch the steaming rack (or steamer insert if using a regular stock pot with a deep steamer insert). Place the tamales standing up into the steamer and pack them fairly snugly. Cover with a damp dish towel, then cover with the stockpot lid. Steam on medium heat for 40 minutes to an hour and-a-half depending on the size of your steamer. Remove one tamale, let stand on the counter for 5 minutes then test for doneness by gently removing the husk. The tamale should come away from the husk with relative ease and the masa should be moist and firm and not wet and soggy. If it's not quite firm, then continue steaming checking every 10 minutes for doneness.

Let the cooked tamales rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Variations and serving suggestions

• Try adding a large jar of salsa verde to the shredded chicken and omit the cheese. These are heavenly.
• Use this same mole recipe substituting stewing beef for the pork butt. 
• Serve the tamales with refried beans, spanish rice, chunky pico de gallo (or your favorite salsa).
• For a Tex-Mex variation, try serving the tamales slathered in chili beans. Yum! This is my dad's favorite way.
• The day after Christmas, we always had this yummy Mexican-style breakfast: fry up the leftover cooked  tamales in some Mazola Corn Oil and serve with fried eggs and salsa and some runny refried beans. I love the crisp, crunchy crust the frying forms on the tamales. 
• Tamales can be reheated in the microwave but for a truly freshly made tamale, I prefer to reheat them by steaming them in a small 3 quart stock pot like this one from ikea with this steamer insert.

Do you have foods that bring back childhood memories? 


  1. Fantastic fun Ani- We're still enjoying the tamales we made that day.
    Growing up we used to eat the Chinese equivalent to tamales that were sticky rice, with the chef's choice of fillings, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Another labor intensive endeavor made fun by group effort :-)

  2. seriously, you should have a little gathering and teach us these! LOL... love you!

  3. Maybe dumplings first - potstickers, shu mai, etc. - gratification comes much quicker. Especially if you'll take photos :-) love you too!

  4. Hello Ani L. Arambula,
    This post is very nice. Chicken tamales is so good. It is very delicious to look at. Thank you for sharing the ingredients and recipe. Hope your next recipe will published soon.


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