Every year at Christmas time, without fail, my mom likes to tell the same joke:
Q: Why do Mexicans always have tamales on Christmas?
A: So that they have something to unwrap!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mexican cuisine, tamales are a concoction of cornmeal and various fillings (sweet or savory), wrapped in corn husks and steamed until cooked.
Once a tamale is cooked, you unwrap it from the corn husk and enjoy.
For many Mexican families, especially in California, tamales are synonymous with the Christmas season.
Many families turn their kitchens into mini tamale-making factories, churning out dozens of batches at a time.
The tamales are eaten throughout the entire holiday season, and also given away to friends and family members.
I’ve always liked the idea of everyone getting together to make tamales. Unfortunately, my Mexican side of the family lacks the know-how and culinary skills to actually take part in this tradition.
Instead, we turn to our local taqueria owner, a woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, who sells tamales of your choice by the dozen.
Joining the Tamale Production Line
This year, however, I had the chance to get together with a couple of my friends in California—who are both of Mexican descent—and join their families in the tamale production line.
I always had the idea that tamale-making was a very laborious process, but it turned out to be relatively simple.
We bought a bag of prepared masa (a mixture of corn meal, water, lime, salt, and lard) from a nearby taqueria. The dried cornhusks, chicken, and green chili sauce were purchased from a Mexican market.
To make the tamales, you first have to soak the corn husks in cold water to make them pliable. Then, a layer of masa is spread on the smooth side of the husk. In the middle, you add the filling. Wrap everything up, and the tamales are ready to go in the steamer.
We ended up making two types of tamales. The first were sweet tamales, with a combination of brown and white sugars, and a heavy-handed pouring of ground cinnamon. The second was a savory mixture of green chili and shredded chicken.
Both types turned out really well, and it was fun to partake in this traditional activity.
It’s a nice way to spend time with loved ones over the holidays, and to create something delicious in the process!