This is from my Zermeño Crossculturing Column, every Wednesday, in our local newspaper, the Hayward Daily Review, of December 22, 2004.

The Tamal

Next you go out to eat in a Mexican restaurant, have your white-out handy. I want you to do me a favor. Look in their menu, and if you see 'tamale' on it, please white out the final 'e.'

This came to mind while I was visiting Taquería Uruapan (Huntwood and Industrial Blvd.) were the Solorio family have finally opened their dream restaurant. Mother Solorio reminded me that in Michoacán, México, tamales are also called 'corundas.'

Any food which dates back to around 7000 B.C. reserves our respect. Invented by women back then, the 'tamalli' (Aztec's nahuatl for tamal, meaning 'wrapped food') is the original traveling food of the Américas. It was buried along with the dead for nourishment on the long journey. It was packed for the soldiers as they went off to do battle. It was offered to the gods, since, as per Aztec mythology, they had used corn to make man. The corn husks, banana or avocado leaves acted as preservatives and prevented the tamal from burning when put on direct fires before eating.

Back then, the tamales were made of fish, tadpoles, bees, honey, seeds, frogs, ants, tomato, corn, sweets, anything, you name it. Pork became popular after 1492. Tamales do take a long time to make, so people began to reserve tamales for special occasions only. It became December's food of choice, since in the Latino world, from December 3 to January 6, there are nothing but festivities.

There are so many different types of tamales, it is mind boggling. In Nicaragua the 'nacatamales' are wrapped in banana leaves and have pork, chicken, pepper, potato and mint. They are square, big and the food is on top, right on the middle. Their sweet tamales are made of piloncillo (a pure sugarcane sweet). The ones from El Salvador are similar.

In Panamá, they make a stew for the tamal filling, with pork, chicken and onions, are also square, wrapped in banana leaves, and are a whole meal onto themselves.

Guatemala has paches and chuchitos. Bolivia and Ecuador have humitas. Colombia bollos, and Venezuela hallacas. Even different areas of México has different names, such as zacahulles in Veracruz, on the Golf of México, and where the Spaniards first landed in the Américas.

For homemade tamales, consider having a Tamalada, or home tamal making party, which is a Latino family tradition and a great opportunity to bond as a family or community, while also having fun. Make sure that at least one is a 'tamalero' (tamal expert), otherwise, your tamales wont be tamales.

You can start from scratch, if you like, for your tamalada. Once you you have the corn kernels, you have to soak them in water and cal (lime) in order to have them lose their skin. Once skinless, they are soft, are now called 'nixtamal' and can be mashed into masa. You may just chose to go buy some at La Mexicana on A St. Buy the corn husks and then soak them in water. Cook the filling and then form an assembly line in the kitchen. Be careful with the chile, since you could burn your hands. One arranges de husks in the hand, another puts the masa on the husks, then the filling, followed by the folding and on to the pot, to be steamed. Music and gossip follow until they are ready, some two hours later.

Modern tamaleros now use vegetable shortening and are shying away from post 1492 lard. They are lighter and moister, but lard is still the favorite, especially when fried after they have been around a while. What would I do without tamales...

Here are some tamal don'ts. Do not boil your tamal. You never want canned tamales, period. Some folks recommend plastic or aluminum for wrapping the tamal. Folks, this is a cultural sin. They say that this prevents the banana or corn flavor from getting to the tamal, por favor! Hayward on! Gracias mil.

Francisco Zermeño is a Hayward educator and businessman. He can be reached at machetez@sbcglobal.net , 510.732.2746 or at www.zermeno.com.


Below is a tamal response from a reader.

Mr. Zermeno, I must write to tell you that after reading your article on Tamales I learned two new words which I have now passed on to my family. We had a Tamalada this past Sunday, and my mom the Tamelera supervised as she has now passed the torch to me. My sisters and I couldn't let the many years of tradition stop just because my mom threatened to start buying tamales for Christmas dinner. Three years ago I began writing the directions down ( I cannot call it a recipe, because you know nothing is done in measurements). The last modifications were made and now I've documented and sent a copy to my sisters. We are 4 daughters to Mexican immigrant Maria Rosa, and as I said we could not let the tradition stop, and are already passing it down to the next two generations (some of them are boys). 

My mom said she hopes you will publish a book of all your articles. I will be printing them and give them to her as a surprise at our next Tamalada.

Feliz Navidad, Linda Chacon Sanchez (23/xii/04)

"La naturaleza del tamal es tal
que si está bien es tamal
y si está mal no es tamal"

(del menú del restaurante Los Colorines, Cuernavaca, México - enviado por mi amiga Karina Cachón, 26/xii/04)

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© jfzc28/xii/04