Making Mexican Tamales
I discovered that in the Yucatan (which is where Merida is located), the tamales are very different from the usual Mexican style ones. Making authentic Mayan tamales is a time-consuming, labour-intensive job.
I am beginning to understand why it is so hard to find tamales as street food here. Because we wanted to try some authentic Mayan food I decided to take a Mexican cooking class that would teach me all about preparing these delicious homemade tamales.
Authentic Tamales come from Maya cuisine and were made long before the Spanish invasion of the Yucatan. In the Yucatan, these tamales are not the same as the usual Mexican tamale. They are made from masa and filled with chicken, turkey, pork or vegetables and cheese. However, unlike other tamales in Mexico here in the Yucatan, they wrap them in banana leaves instead of corn husks.
The Mayan people have been preparing and eating tamales for centuries and they are even depicted in the ancient Mayan artwork and excavated artefacts. Mayan food covers the gamut from fiery hot foods to delicately flavoured tamales – of course these do have to be served with incredibly spicy habanero salsa.
The process for making Mexican tamales is incredibly labour intensive and we learned so much that I have written this article and included a Tamale Ingredients list and Tamale Recipes & Instructions both of which are Pdf’s that you can download. If you don’t have any Masa de Maiz available you can make your own from dried or canned hominy you can download the recipe here, Recipe for Masa de Maiz.
Maya cuisine tamales
First of all, we learned that you cannot use Maseca Flour to make authentic tamales, which was an eye-opener. Many of us had tried in the past with very little success.
Apparently, you need masa de maiz pura or raw corn dough that you can buy here in Mexico from any tortilleria or even grocery stores. This “dough” is simply the nixtamaled corn ground with a little water to form very stiff corn dough. This dough is placed in a bowl and then you add a liquid which can be water or stock, salt, Manteca or pork fat and if you want to you can add Recado Rojo which flavours the dough with herbs, spices and annatto or achiote, chaya or X’pelóns which are fresh beans can also be added depending on the type of tamale you want to make.
Here in the Yucatan, they use banana leaves to wrap and steam their tamales in and the first job is to clean the leaves. Mexican tamales here in the Yucatan use banana leaves and in mainland Mexico, they use corn husks.
Next, we learned what to add to the dough and how to press it out for the different tamales. We also added chaya to one dough, Recado Rojo to another dough and to a third dough we added the X’pelóns.
Different types of Mexican tamales
The first tamale we made is a speciality of the area and has been made for hundreds of years by the Mayan people. The Brazo de Reyna o Dzotobichay or “the Queen’s Arm” tamale is eaten during Lent. This type of tamales is a staple of Mayan cuisine and the word “dzotobichay” actually comes from the Mayan word: chay tobil Ts’o, which means “cooked corn dough with Chaya”.
These tamales are made quite long and stuffed with boiled eggs, pepita molida which is ground roasted pumpkin seeds and a lovely tomato sauce. They are then steamed for an hour and a half before being served; when they are served they are cut into smaller pieces or rounds.
The second tamale was made with the X’pelóns added to the dough. First, the beans are boiled for 3 minutes and then once the dough is ready with the liquid, Manteca (pork fat) and salt added the beans are added and the dough kneaded. The tamale dough must be soft and pliable and not crack too much around the edges when pressed out. Our Chef told us you can feel when the dough is ready because your hands will feel soft and a little greasy from the pork fat but the dough does not stick to them.
Our third tamale was made with Recado Roja added to the dough. Recado Rojo is an achiote based paste to which water is added to thin it a little and it is added to the dough creating an orangey-red colour. Both dough’s had a melted pork fat (Manteca) and salt added then kneaded until fully incorporated and smooth.
In the meantime the Chef had a pot of simmering pork with the bone in on the stove, he removed the foam from the top of the pot and then he blackened a garlic bulb and a white onion to add to the broth. In a separate pan, he sautéed tomatoes, onion, garlic, Manteca, sweet pepper, and then added the epazote. He then went back to the meat pot and added pepper, salt, Recado Blanco and simmered for a little longer, adding in the chicken on the bone.
After around 30 minutes or so when the meat was cooked it was removed the meat from the pot to allow it to cool and he added into the broth the sautéed vegetables and began to mix some of the raw dough for the “Kol” or thickener for the tamale sauce. In the Mayan language, Kol translates to a sauce that has been thickened with masa. It’s similar to a velouté in French cuisine. This sauce was to be used to top the meat mixture in the centre of the tamales. Traditionally these tamales are made with both pork and chicken but the Chef told us these days’ people often make them chicken or pork.
These last tamales were much smaller than the first ones we made. The dough was pressed by hand or with a tortilla press into a circular shape that was about a 1/8th of an inch thick and around 6-7 inches around, not to thin or the masa tears easily.
We then placed the meat in the centre of the round, topped it with the Kol and then wrapped up the meat and sauce in a kind of sushi/burrito roll wrapping the whole roll with the banana leaf and then placing the tamales in a steamer. The tamales go into the steamer and cook for around an hour and a half. You can test the tamales with a knife or toothpick inserted, like a cake if it comes out clean the tamale is ready. When ready to serve the tamales are unwrapped and topped with either the sauce used to fill the tamales or fresh salsa.
Tamales are immensely labour intensive and after our class experience, we can easily see why families get together and create a production line for making huge pots of tamales. They freeze beautifully and can easily be re-heated in the microwave or steamer. They taste incredible and are a world apart from the fake tamales you get in grocery stores or frozen in North America.
Authentic Mexican Tamales – Ingredients
Before you make tamales there is a lot you need to know. Those of us from NOB (well some of us) have only had tamales made with Maseca the cornflour we think of as traditional Mexican. Well, the best tamales are made from masa de maiz or put simply the raw corn dough that is a result of grinding the nixtamaled corn before it is dried into flour known as maseca.
Most Mexicans would not be caught using maseca for their tamales as it is just not the right consistency. masa de maiz (Pura) can be purchased here in Mexico in any tortilleria as this is the dough they use to make tortillas. In North America, some specialized Latin American shops might carry the dough fresh or frozen, or see if you can find a tortilla producer locally to purchase the dough from. If this is not available to you there is a way to make the dough yourself from dried corn but that is a whole other blog post.
The dough itself is quite tough and dry and needs some working and additions to make it pliable enough to use either for tamales or for tortillas. Added to the dough is a variety of ingredients that should include a source of moisture (either water or stock), fat (preferably Manteca or pork fat) in addition you can add a recado (spice mixture or blend), chaya or X’pelóns.
s are a traditional Mayan fresh bean. The beans can be purchased in Mexico between the months of November to April and are sold fresh. The beans should be cooked in boiling water for around 2 minutes (parboiling) they will turn a sort of greyish black colour. X’pelóns are similar to a fresh black-eyed pea, raw they taste kind of like grass and cooked they are a little sweeter and tender.
Chaya is spinach-like green that goes back thousands of years in Maya cuisine. You have to be very careful with Chaya as it has a milky substance when the leaves and stems are squeezed that can sting if you get it in your eyes. The plant also has a hair-thin layer and cannot be eaten raw it must be cooked for at least 20 minutes before eating. The plant itself is very high in vitamins and protein, in fact, it is almost three times greater than other leafy vegetables. Here in Mexico, you can ask for your chaya to be cleaned before purchasing.
Chile X’katic (Sh-kah- teek) This Chili is long and narrow and sort of a triangular shape and will be a light yellow or light green it can be as spicy as a jalapeno. Used in many Yucatecan Mayan dishes it can also be called a guero chilli. It is apparently related to the banana or yellow wax chilli.
Chile Dulce/Sweet Pepper This appears to be a very small green pepper, it is sweet, not hot and used exactly as the bell pepper.
Epazote (eh-pah-SOH-teh) Is a well-loved Mexican herb, preferably used fresh in North America it can be purchased dried in some Latin American stores. It has quite a strong smell and it gives a distinct flavour to Mexican dishes. It is also known as a digestive type of herb and used to cook many bean dishes and is said to relieve the gastrointestinal effects of beans. It has a distinct perfume smell but the taste is quite different and very herbaceous.
Recados are considered the backbone of Yucatecan cuisine and there are three different kinds; Recado Rojo, Recado Negro and Recado Blanco.
Recado Rojo’s bases are annatto or achiote seeds that are ground and mixed with garlic, oregano, cumin, cloves and coriander, black pepper, allspice and salt. The combined are formed into a brick so to speak that is wrapped and then used in various dishes by adding liquids.
You take a chunk of the paste and mix it with sour orange, or white vinegar to form the paste used for Maya dishes such as conchinita pibil or Chicken Rojo. In the case of the tamales, we used a chunk of the achiote recado and mixed it with water until it formed a thin paste and this was used both in the tamale dough and in the meat mixture to flavour the chicken and pork for the tamale filling.
Chilemole /Recado Negro – it is made with fire-blackened Ancho chiles, white vinegar, a few ground annatto seeds, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, garlic, onion, oregano, epazote and salt.
Recado Blanco/de bistec This spice blend is not only used for a wide variety of meats, pork, seafood, chicken and vegetables. It has distinct cumin, coriander fragrance.
Pepita Molida these are toasted and ground pumpkin seeds. Used to make a traditional Mayan dip or sauce when mixed with roasted tomatoes and cilantro called T’Sikil Pak.
How to make authentic Mexican tamales
- 2 lbs or 1kg fresh masa for tamales from a tortilleria
- 10 oz. or 250 grams Maseca flour
- 5 oz or 150 grams Manteca (have a little extra on hand, depending on the dough it may need more liquid fat)
- 5 good pinches of salt
- 1.5 cups water or stock of your choice
Additions to the tamale dough:
Freshly washed Chaya about 1 cup tightly packed (if you don’t have access to chaya you can use spinach, 1 box of frozen squeezed of all moisture will work)
2 cups of washed and parboiled X’pelóns
- Melt the lard until it is fairly liquidy and soft, and then combine lard, with the salt.
- In a large bowl knead the masa dough with your hands adding in the lard and salt mixture, slowly add in the stock or water kneading all the time until the liquids are fully incorporated into the dough.
- If you wish to add the chaya/spinach or X’pelóns add into the dough and knead until evenly distributed.
- If you are using the Recado Rojo simply add to the dough mixture with the other liquids.
- The dough should be firm but pliable and will leave a slightly greasy feel on your hands. If you roll a small piece of dough into a ball and flatten it should be easy to make into a flat round with no cracking through the centre of the dough, it will crack along the edges. If the dough feels somewhat dry add some more Manteca and knead again.
- The dough is now ready to place on the banana leaves.
- Take a piece of the cleaned banana leaf around 10 inches long and place on a flat surface.
- Roll a small 2-inch ball (5cm) of masa dough and place in the centre of the banana leaf. If you want to use a tortilla press cover the bottom plate of the press with a banana leaf and place the ball in the centre of the press, cover the top plate and press the ball into a 6 inch round. If you are pressing by hand place a small piece of paper under the banana leaf which will allow the leaf to turn on the table, slowly from the centre out press the ball into a flat round the same size as above.
- Into the centre of the round place a small handful of meat or filling of your choice (chicken, cooked beans, refried beans, shredded chicken, pork, fish or beef).
- Spoon around 1 large tablespoon of sauce onto the top of the filling and gently using one side of the banana leaf close the circle on either side with the masa dough. Then seal the ends of the masa to keep the sauce and filling intact. You will get some cracking of the dough so simply use your fingers to pinch closed.
- Make sure you wrap the banana leaf closely around the masa and the filling closing the edges (sort of burrito style wrapping).
- Place on its side in the steamer and add more tamales as you get them wrapped.
- Cook in the steamer for around 1 and 1/2 hours. Tamales are cooked when a knife or toothpick comes out clean.
- Remove from banana leaf and add warm sauce on top, garnish Salsa Roja Sofrito, avocado, cilantro and crema if you wish.
Preparing the meat and sauce for the tamales
- 250 grams or 1/4 lb of the Masa de maiz
- 1000 grams or 2 lbs pork loin or leg (you need the bones to make a great broth)
- 2 skinless chicken breasts (keep the bone in)
- 50 grams Recado Rojo
- 50 grams or 3.25 Tbsp Recado Blanco
- 5 Tomatoes
- 2 x Chile Dulce (2 very small green peppers)
- 1 x Onion
- 1 cup epazote
- 1 head of garlic
- 2 medium-sized onions
- 50 grams or 3.25 Tbsp oregano
- A good pinch of black pepper
- A good pinch of salt
- Oil for sautéing vegetables
- Fill a good-sized pot with water, add the salt and place the pork with the bones in the pot. When you see the foam forming on top of the pan carefully skim the foam off the top of the mixture.
- While you bring the meat to a boil, blacken the full head of garlic and the onion on the burner or BBQ. When they are fully blackened add to the pot of meat and lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer the meat for at least 45 minutes until the meat begins to soften.
- Take the Recado Rojo and mix with water until you have created a smooth thin paste. Sieve this mix over the pot of meat to ensure you remove any potential large pieces of achiote.
- Add in the black pepper, salt, Recado Blanco and the epazote.
- Add in the skinless chicken and allow to simmer for at least 30 minutes.
- Take the tomatoes, green pepper and 2nd onion and roughly slice. Place some oil in the pan and add the onions. When you can smell the onions cooking add in the green pepper and the tomatoes.
- Remove the meat from the broth and place on the side to cool. Once cooled you will shred the meat, remove the bones and any large pieces of fat.
- Take the now cooked vegetables and add them to the pot of broth.
- Take the 250 grams of the masa dough and mix with water until you have a pancake consistency liquid. This will be used to thicken the broth to make the “Kol” or sauce for the tamales.
- Add the liquid to the stockpot along with the cooked vegetables and stir well, cook this for around 20-30 minutes until it thickens into a sauce-like consistency.
- When thickened allow to cool down and this is now your sauce to go into the tamales.
- Take your circular formed masa dough and place the shredded meat in the centre then place around 2 Tbsps of the sauce on the top of the meat and wrap up the tamale.
- Steam the tamales for around 1.5 hours and serve with Salsa Roja Sofrito.
Salsa Roja Sofrito
- 2 small green peppers
- 1 Chile X’Catic
- 6 tomatoes
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 medium-sized white onion
- 1cup epazote
- A good pinch of salt
- 2 Tbsps of Manteca
- A good pinch of pepper
- Slice peppers, 1/2 of the onion and tomatoes into small sized pieces and sauté with the Manteca until they soften.
- Add in 1 cup of water the epazote and cook for around 10 minutes.
- Add into the sauté pan the chiles, garlic and the rest of the onion that has been diced.
- Sauté the mixture adding salt and pepper to taste. Cool the sofrito and use the blender to puree into a thick sauce.
- This is the sauce that is used in the Brazo de Reyna tamales.
Rick Bayless did a whole TV series about cooking and food in the Yucatan, here is one of his best recipes for Mexican tamales.
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