I’ll admit, I had never eaten a tamale before October of 2017. They had always seemed a part of some realm into which I never wanted to stray for fear of making a cultural faux pas or appropriating a food to which I had no right. My first experience with them was eye-opening, to say the least. Let me set the scene. I was in Downtown Albuquerque for my field’s annual professional conference. I had a day before the conference began to explore the city, so I took off from the convention center to take in the sights. I immediately came upon a farmer’s market where they were roasting green chiles in those enormous, rotating gyres of smoky goodness. In the wise words of Anthony Bourdain, best start with the market to really get to know a city. I started meandering my way down aisles packed with fresh produce, a guitarist duo singing in Spanish, a myriad of dogs, and tamale stands. After eyeing one of the tamale stands and deciding, “I am brave enough to do this,” I walked towards it, the aroma of pork causing my mouth to explode with saliva. I got closer and closer and then I continued walking right past it, avoiding eye contact like the plague. I had lost my nerve at the last second. I smiled at some dogs, forgot what in the world I was supposed to do with my hands, and turned myself slowly around to make another pass. It took me a couple of tries to get the nerve to finally order a tamale, and once I did I went to sit under a huge tree with my prize. I looked down at the ominous corn husk and wondered to myself, “Am I supposed to eat the husk?” I looked around and didn’t see anyone else eating one, so I did what any 25 year old adult would naturally do…I called my mom.
“Mom, can you look up whether you’re supposed to eat the corn husk on a tamale?” I asked, my whiteness emanating from me like a beacon. It seemed people could sense my ineptitude and called it to the forefront as they passed.
“Where’d you get the tamale?” They asked me in what I’m sure were jovial tones. I shrank back into the shadows of the tree and motioned noncommittally towards the stand.
“OOH LOOK, she has a tamale!” Another woman shrieked to her companion, causing heads to turn towards my shriveling, tortured frame.
“You don’t eat the husk!” My mom finally exclaimed, her group of friends giggling audibly in the background.
As I settled into the experience of novelty that comes from trying foods from other cultures, I realized how worth it my brief embarrassment had been for this masterpiece of a dish. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to try my hand at the fabled masa harina dough, the savory pork, and the impossibly tied husks. Now that I have, and went over like gangbusters, I think I’ll be freezing tamales for decades to come.
This is the recipe I used for the general tamale foundation, but I tailored it a bit to fit my tastes. I couldn’t bring myself to buy lard just for the sake of this recipe, so I used shortening in the masa harina. I also made my own chicken stock the other day, so I used that instead of water to boil the pork loin, and I used the leftover juices to create the masa dough. I think using stock imparts a huge amount of flavor, so I don’t think I’d go without it in this case. I also love the person’s story about how they got this recipe. I want to have the balls to go up to an old Latina woman and ask for her family recipes. Other modifications include:
- Add about a tsp of chili powder to the dough
- Add about a tsp of chili powder to the chili sauce and if you double the number of chilis you use, you don’t have to double the amount of water.
- Make sure the liquid (water or broth) is covering the pork when you boil it. It can definitely cook for way longer than two hours as well. The longer you cook it, the more shreddable it becomes. Anywhere from 4-6 hours should be just fine.
1 cup masa dough (from the recipe above)
1 cup shredded pork loin mixed with chili sauce
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup sour cream
Chives, for garnish
- Preheat oven to 400 F
- Spread dough evenly across the bottom of a large cast iron skillet.
- Sprinkle meat evenly across dough.
- Layer corn and cheese on top of the meat.
- Cover the pan with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown slightly on top. Serve over cornbread with generous dollops of sour cream and a sprinkle of chives.