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4/12/10

A Quest for the Perfect Tamales

It is that time of the year, Christmas music on all the radio stations, unavoidable traffic near the malls and shopping centers, decorations around the neighborhood, and the great smells of ginger bread cookies, panetonni, nutmeg, cinnamon, and all kinds of Christmas goodies to savor from here and from around the World. Of course, who cannot enjoy the Christmas movies with Charlie Brown and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer with marshmallows dipped in the hot cocoa.

Well, let me say I really love Christmas in the United States, but it is also a time I miss Christmas in Mexico the most.  I’ve attended plenty of Christmas parties here in the United States and they are great, but I really miss the parties in Mexico, or to be more specific, the Posadas.  The Posadas topic deserves a whole page to itself, so I will save this for another posting later this year.

When this time of the year comes, I start craving all the good food from Mexico, chocolate caliente, ponche, café con canela, canela caliente, all kinds of hot drinks made with maíz called atoles, like champurrado,  atole de guayaba, atole de piña, and the one specialty from my home town “atole de teja”.  If you are wondering what an “atole is”, stay tuned for my next blog post of look it up.  All these hot drinks are accompanied by pan mexicano, which can be purchased in any bakery in Mexico called “panaderías”.  Of course now in the modern days, any big mega grocery store in Mexico has a panadería in their bakery section, however the taste of the bread is not the same as the homemade bread made in the local small panaderías.  I’ve been fortunate enough to taste fresh hot bread from a panadería right out of the oven, or what we call “recién salidito del horno”.  When I was a kid, one of my daily errands was to get fresh bread in the evenings, and I loved it!  As I would walk back home, I would eat one or two pieces on my way back, so soft, with such a wonderful smell of vanilla, mmm, I was full by the time I got home. 

Besides missing all the typical goodies from Mexico, I miss the grand famous “tamales”.  Tamales are everywhere you go in Mexico during the Christmas season; they are part of the food staple in Mexican families as a way to share this magical time of the year with friends.  During this time of the year, visiting people’s houses is very common, and almost every host offers tamales accompanied by a hot drink.  The most popular tamales in every household are made out of pork with chile rojo, but there are many other different varieties:  ground beef (picadillo), chicken (pollo), beans (frijoles), peppers with cheese (rajas de chile con queso), turkey (pavo), and the plain sugar tamales, some with raisins and coconut.  

These are all wrapped in corn husks and once done they are best to taste when they come out of the steaming pot.  I’m not a food critic, but in my opinion, the best tamales are thin, moist, not too greasy, and one should be able to taste the flavor of the masa or the corn, which should not overshadow the taste of the filling of the tamal.  In other words, both the masa and the filling should really complement each other, but the masa to me is the most important thing.  Perfectly thin, perfectly moist and soft, not too salty, not too spicy, just perfect.  The way I test the consistency of the masa once is cooked is through my hands and a fork.  The softness is felt right away, almost leaving a footprint of steam and moistness in your hand, and if tested with a fork, the fork should go right through the masa, with no hesitations.  Of course, we must not forget about the tamales wrapped in banana leaves and agave leaves, there are many varieties in Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan as well as other parts of the country.

In my lifetime, all the tamales I happen to eat, are always compared to Cata’s tamales, and believe me, that is a super high standard to measure against.  Cata is an extended family member who makes the best tamales in Matehuala, my hometown.  Every year when the posadas are about to start, she gets hundreds of orders from people who know how well she cooks them.  Her tamales are hard to beat, not is only is the masa fantastic, but the filling she makes for the tamales is amazing!  She combines the right ingredients of “red chiles”, with the right spices, with the right amount of pork.  Her tamales are small but generous, in other words, you get a lot of juicy pork once you open one. 

Now, let me tell you about my experiences here in Texas when it comes to tamales.  First of all, I’ve heard too many funny stories about people eating tamales with the corn husk. For all of those who don’t know how to eat a “tamal” (is not “tamale” people), you take off the corn husk by unwrapping it from the masa, pour some salsa on top of it, and enjoy!  That’s it!  Another surprise to me has been tasting tamales with too many spices (including paprika, chili powder and Cajun spices), or in other words are called “tex-mex” tamales.  As I’ve said before, the flavor of the masa should not overpower the filling, otherwise you won’t be able to taste both, but hey, if that’s how people like it around here, that’s fine with me.  To me is best to keep things simple; all I know is I won’t be tasting tex-mex tamales any time soon.  Another grand surprise I’ve found is people put gravy on their tamales!  What?  Yes, gravy!  I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I have not had the courage to taste tamales with gravy yet. 

Maybe one day when I go desperate for any tamales, I will.  Last but not least, here in Texas, chili tamales and cheddar cheese with beans are a big thing, as well as brisket and barbecue tamales.  No offense to the tex-mex cuisine, I’ve accepted some of its modifications to authentic Mexican food, but not in a tamal. I guess I will stick to my good old authentic traditional tamales, no matter what tex-mexers think.

So I’m too busy these days to make tamales, I must confess I’ve never made tamales in my life.  I remember helping make tamales by smearing the masa to the corn husk with a spoon, it takes practice as if you almost have to develop a skill on how to do it right, not too fat, just thin enough to be able to hold all the juices of the meat, but that’s as far as my tamal making skills go.  So instead of making tamales, I decided to look for the perfect tasty tamal in the area sticking to the southern part of the city.  I found 7 places in total, two of them were already closed forever (yeah, gone out of business for not making the right tamales, that’s right!) and the other 5, I decided to explore.   By the way, during my quest I decided to avoid the usual tex-mex tamales makers in the area (pretty popular on the search engines with all the comment reviews in English) and are the only ones who have web pages, but I’ve tasted these tamales before and even though they are pretty good as tex-mex, they  don’t fit in the “authentic Mexican food” category.   Out of the 5 places, 2 were grocery stores who sell tamales in their kitchen section.  I shall say, both places had really greasy tamales, so down to 3:  Alma’s Tamales, Texas Tamale Factory (ok, this is te- mex but I gave it a try), and Tamales Doña Tere
So who has the best tamales in the South part of Houston of these 3?  Well, Texas tamales Factory has a good variety of tamales, they are thin, but again, the masa has no simplicity in its taste and no softness which in turn overpowers the taste of the pork, one can actually taste the paprika or the chili (not sure what’s there); as far as the salsa, well, it also taste like chili, but hey, if that’s what people like, I respect that.  Is it moist enough?  Yes, but not to the consistency of Cata’s tamales, it doesn’t bend in your hands. What about Alma’s tamales?  I’d say they taste about the same as Texas tamales factory, I actually tasted their bean tamales with white cheese and let me say this which sums it all up:  if you can actually taste the beans from a can, that says a lot about a tamal.  Last but not least, Tamales Doña Tere has the most flavorful tamales in my humble opinion.  Just taste the masa and you will see what I mean when I’m talking about actually savoring the flavor of the masa at its most simple state, not so salty, not many spices, just good enough to compliment the filling.  Also, the pork filling is pretty good, you can actually taste real authentic chile ancho sauce along with all the other chiles.  The only downside to these flavorful tamales:  they are way too thick, the masa is actually harder than the previous two places, and the filling of the tamal is a little dry and not enough for the size of the tamal.   So even though the moistness is compromised by the thickness of the tamal, I think it is still the best choice.  Also, if you are going to order a dozen of tamales from this place, well, it is quite expensive.  Each tamal costs about $1.39 and the same price per tamal is kept even if you order a dozen, so this is a thumbs down for me when ordering in big quantities, the other places offer much competitive prices for a dozen.

In conclusion, I didn’t find the perfect tamal, but then what was I expecting?  You can’t have perfection in food but in its place of origin, that’s just how it works.  No matter how far the flavor is modified to accommodate the local culture, like in Texas, a tamal is a tamal due to its concept and it might taste better to the locals then tasting a tamal in Mexico because they already got used to the modified flavor.  Then the quest for the perfect tamal fails or not, it depends on the person and the taste. 

On my way back to the house, I decided to ask around at a big local grocery store that made the best tamales in the area, none of the names above came up.  One person told me “Amelia” made the best tamales to order, another lady said she made good tamales herself, and another person told me to go to one of the cooks in the store, everybody ordered tamales from her.  Ok, so maybe I can find a replica of Cata’s tamales in one of these ladies.  Who knows, maybe I did find the lady who makes the perfect tamales!

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