Making Yucatecan Tamales: Mexican cooking Class
I love learning to cook and Mexican food is obviously one of my favourite cuisines to learn about. I discovered that in the Yucatan (which is where Merida is located), the tamales are very different from the usual Mexican style ones. Making 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 Mexican Tamales I decided to take a cooking class that would teach me all about preparing and cooking these delicious Mexican tamales.
The class was held at Ilet Gastronomia E Idiomas in Progreso; the school teaches languages such as English, Spanish, French and Italian as well as hosts cooking classes. Classes include: Chiles, Tamales, Yucatecan Fish and they are adding a few more in the future as the classes have been quite successful. The process for tamale making is incredibly labour intensive and we learned so much that I have written this blog piece, a Tamale Ingredients and a 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.
We met our Chef Betoo or Brody (as he is called on Facebook), our Spanish teacher Alma was there as well and we got stuck in. 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.
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.
The first tamale we made is a specialty of the area and has been made for 100’s of years by the Mayan people. Brazo de Reyna o Dzotobichay or “the Queen’s Arm” tamale is eaten during Lent. The word “dzotobichay” which 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 in to 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 an 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 a 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.
A couple of great resources include:
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