Mexican cuisine is characterized by intense flavors, fresh ingredients and warming spices, most notably from the myriad of diverse chili peppers that thrive there. These qualities are perhaps best exemplified in the wide array of street foods sold by small vendor stands lining the main thoroughfares in cities throughout Mexico. Perhaps the most beloved antojito or "little craving," is the humble tamale.
Estimated to have originated sometime between 8000 and 5000 B.C., it is known that the Mayans, Aztecs and Incans were all eating tamales around the same time in history. It is said that the tamale was born from a need for a portable, sustaining food to feed the empires’ massive armies during a time when women served beside men in battles as cooks. This ancient food, a small bundle of meat-filled corn dough wrapped in a corn husk, traveled very well and satisfied hearty appetites.
Today, the tamale thrives as the perfect on-the-go meal, available in many puestos, or streetside kitchens in urban Mexico. Meanwhile, in rural areas, tamales are a special occasion food, prepared in huge batches at Christmastime and for weddings or birthday parties. The labor of producing hundreds of individually wrapped tamales is eased by a makeshift kitchen assembly line in which each woman (traditionally) takes on a different role in the process. Families might even have a tamalada, a party solely for the purpose of getting together and making tamales.
To make the tamale dough or masa, corn flour is mixed with baking soda, salt and water or broth which is then added to whipped fat, traditionally pork lard. This dough is then spread onto corn husks and topped with any number of ingredients, such as chicken, beans or vegetables. Strategic folding of the corn husk creates a sealed packet of masa and filling. The tamales are steamed over boiled water until tender and fluffy, ready to be enjoyed with friends and family.
My version of masa lightens things up considerably, using coconut oil and non-hydrogenated palm oil in place of lard, and less fat overall. To add richness, I utilize homemade chicken stock for the dough, but you could easily sub in store-bought broth. My favorite filling is a sweet and smoky blend of roasted sweet potatoes, adobo chilies and black beans, but you could fill yours with almost anything: leftover braised or grilled meats find a happy home mixed with red or green salsa and nestled inside a tamale.
Don't forget that tamale-making is fun, especially when undertaken with good friends, Latin music and a pitcher of margaritas. There’s nothing quite like the heady smell of corn that rises from the steam of the tamalera (tamale pot) or the first warm bite of tender, savory masa. I recommend making a double- or triple-batch and freezing the uneaten tamales. Then, reheat them for work lunches or quick suppers. There is a great sense of accomplishment that arises from seeing a heaped stack of neatly folded tamales on the kitchen table and an equally deep reverence for this ancient food that has filled stomachs and kitchens for thousands of years.
Smoky Sweet Potato and Black Bean Tamales
- 2 sweet potatoes, roasted until tender
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 chipotle peppers in adobo, chopped
- 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- ¼ cup water
Masa (Corn Dough)
- 24 dried corn husks (or more, in case of breakage)
- ⅓ cup non-hydrogenated palm oil, or shortening
- ⅓ cup coconut oil
- 4 cups tamal flour ("masa harina para tamales")
- ½ tablespoon fine-grain sea salt
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 3 cups warm chicken stock or water
- To make the filling, combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Use the edge of a wooden spoon to mash the sweet potatoes, incorporating them into the other ingredients. Cook until simmering, then turn off heat and set aside.
- Soak the corn husks in hot water until pliable, about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, using a stand or hand mixer beat the palm and coconut oils on medium-high speed until tripled in volume and very fluffy, 5 to 8 minutes. It should look like cake frosting.
- In a medium bowl, combine the corn flour, salt and baking powder. Slowly pour in the warm stock or water and mix with your hands or a spatula until you have a uniform dough that resembles a loose cookie dough.
- With the mixer running on medium speed, add the corn dough mixture to the whipped fat, about 1/2 cup at a time. Continue to beat on medium-high speed until the masa is light and fluffy, about 5 to 8 more minutes.
- Drain the corn husks. To assemble the tamales, take one husk, dry it thoroughly and put a heaping serving spoon of the masa (about 1/4 cup) on the concave, ribbed side of the husk. Spread the batter onto the husk with your fingers or a spatula to flatten it into a rectangle, leaving an inch of space around the outside. The masa layer should be about a quarter-inch thick. (I've found wet fingertips are the best tool for this task).
- Place about a tablespoon of the sweet potato and black bean filling in the middle of the dough rectangle. Enclose the filling in the masa dough as you fold the husk in half, as if you were closing a book. Tuck one end under to seal the tamale, then tuck the bottom pointed end up underneath, and set the tamale on a plate with tucked end facing down to keep it secure. The wider top end will remain open. Repeat with the remaining husks, dough and filling.
- To cook the tamales, arrange them folded end down (open end up) in a deep steamer basket. Fill a pot that snugly fits the steamer basket with at least 3 inches of water, and place a coin in the pot so you can tell if the water has evaporated. (You’ll know you need to add more water when the jiggling noise from the coin stops.)
- Place the tamale-filled steamer basket on top of the pot and cover the tamales with additional corn husks or a damp towel and secure the lid. These coverings will ensure that little moisture escapes and the tamales steam properly.
- Bring the water to a boil (you will hear the coin start to jiggle) and steam the tamales (adding more boiling water if you no longer hear the coin jiggling) until the tamale dough separates from the husk easily when you unwrap it, about 45 minutes.
- To eat, unwrap the tamale from the husk (discard or compost the husk) and enjoy warm with salsa, crema or a simple squeeze of lime. Makes 24 tamales.
- Both corn husks and masa harina can be found at Mexican grocery stores or well-stocked supermarkets.
- A steamer basket nestled inside a pot with a tight fitting lid is essential for cooking moist, tender tamales.
- If you're new to making tamales, a quick YouTube search for a video demonstration may be worth your while.