Why I Follow My Grandmother's Tradition of Making Tamales for Christmas
Every Christmas Eve when I was a kid, we'd walk into my grandma's house in Southern California and see a huge spread on the dining table. She'd have baked ham, deviled eggs, Mexican rice, dinner rolls, cold cuts, fruit salad bathed in Cool Whip. And always, always tamales. Within a few minutes of arriving, we would pile our plates—or rather, she would pile them for us—and then at the end of the night, after gifts were opened, she'd send us off with a big container of tamales. We ate tamales at all times of the day until they ran out, usually shortly after we went back to school.
Tamales, to me, are the quintessential Christmas food. They're pure comfort—a fluffy, spongy corn cake that smells a little minerally and earthy, usually with a spicy, decadent filling inside. (My grandma liked to fill hers with shredded pork in a deep, brick-red chile sauce.) It wasn't until I moved to Mexico City in 2013 and lived there for four years that I realized how many different types of tamales actually exist. There are sweet tamales studded with raisins and pineapple, and savory tamales wrapped in banana leaves. There are tamales stuffed only with beans, and tamales made with rice flour. I even learned that the word tamales comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, which means "wrapped."
While living in Mexico, I tried and loved other typical Mexican Christmas foods too: a crunchy, colorful Christmas Eve salad made with chopped jicama and beets. And ponche, a warm, spiced punch made with molasses-y piloncillo sugar, guava and cinnamon.
Pictured Recipe: Chicken Tamales
But tamales feel closest to my heart at Christmastime. I'm a mom to two small kids, so I don't always have time to make them. But I still buy them come December. They're a staple on our Christmas plate, wrapped snugly in their husks. We eat other things that mean something to our family, too—the buttery mushrooms my Southern mother-in-law makes, the cheese grits my husband loves. And always pie for dessert.
I still like my tamales spicy, but now I make a blander version without chile for my little ones. Just recently, my 4-year-old son asked me something that my heart swell a little: "Mama, can I have a cheese tamal?" I served it to him in the husk, just like my grandma and my mom did with me.
How to Make the Best Tamales
When you're ready to make tamales, start by soaking the corn husks. Then make the filling and, while it cools, make the dough. (You can also make the filling a few days in advance.) Then it's time to stuff and fold the tamales. Read on for some tips on making the best tamales and see my recipe for Chicken Tamales for all the details.
1. Season Your Filling Well
To make tamales at home, first plan your filling. You don't want a filling that's too wet, as it will seep out of the corn husk. The filling should also be well seasoned, so the flavors don't get lost when wrapped in the dough.
2. Make a Fluffy Dough
For the dough, choose between freshly ground corn masa (dough) for tamales—this tastes the best—or if you can't find it, masa harina for tamales. (Look for the picture of tamales on the package.) Fresh tortilla masa will work, too, but the texture of the tamales will be more dense and chewy. Fat gives tamales their typical light, fluffy texture. Lard is the most traditional, or you can use any other type of oil, or even butter.
3. Grab Some Friends to Help You Fill the Tamales
Filling tamales is always done by hand, and it's much faster if you invite friends over to help. Use a rubber spatula to spread the dough on the corn husks, being sure to leave about 3 inches of space on the narrower end of the husk, where you'll fold it closed, and 2 inches of space from the top. Then add about a tablespoon of filling down the middle of the tamale.
4. Wrap and Seal the Tamales
To close the tamales, bring one end of the husk toward the other and press the dough together lightly to seal. (If the filling spills out, you've added too much, but you can spoon a little more masa on top of any leaks.) Tuck the edges of the husk under each other, to form a long tube shape. Hold the tube vertically and press firmly on the bottom edge of the tamale (the narrower end) to seal. Fold the husk back in the place where you've sealed it. Place the tamale on a baking sheet and repeat with remaining tamales.
5. Steam the Tamales
After wrapping, the tamales go into a steamer pot. Adding a layer of corn husks to the steamer basket before you add the tamales adds flavor and helps lock in the steam. Once the water is at a light boil, add tamales carefully in a vertical position. Steam, adding more water if necessary, until the husk just starts to pull away from the dough, about 40 minutes. The tamales will still feel rather soft.
6. Let the Tamales Cool Briefly, Then Serve
Once cooked, the tamales need to cool, to firm up the texture. Using tongs, remove them from the steamer basket and let them cool on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. Then they're ready to eat. Serve with salsa, crema and avocado slices.
Lesley Téllez is the author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas.