Friday, December 28, 2012

Oaxacan Christmas Tamales

One of the most important and fascinating parts of the Christmas season are the many traditions passed down through generations of families and cultures. Around my house we are pretty run of the mill. Christmas Eve church service, presents Christmas morning (now that we don't have any little kids the stockings have gone by the wayside although I'd like to borrow a friend's family tradition next year where all the adult family members pull names and take turns each year filling stockings for each other), a nice but casual dinner with our small extended family in the afternoon. It's a very laid back affair which works for us. Occasionally though I'm jealous of those who have something more unique. I have been aware for some time that Christmas is Tamale making season in the Mexican culture. Early in the fall I was talking to my coworker Sandra who has a large family from Oaxaca, Mexico. It crossed my mind to ask, "does your mom make Tamales at Christmas?" She in fact did although not every year. At my urging she talked her mom into teaching me and the rest is photographed here!

As soon as I arrived one of the biggest plastic bowls I have ever seen was brought out and three 5lb bags of corn flour were poured in, for every bag of flour 1 Tablespoon of baking powder added, then the tub of lard (4 lbs) salt & sugar  (over time I estimate she added about 2-3 cups of each, more sugar than salt, but seasoning was done by taste vs measuring) and slowly 3 gallons of water worked in creating the masa dough.
Because I'm me I couldn't just sit around and watch, I was here to get my hands dirty! I wanted to contribute! And so I was allowed my turn at the mixing bowl.
I knew it wouldn't be easy and I was determined to work my arm to the bone but I was disappointed with how quickly I burned out compared to Sandra's mom! As I worked my arm around and around searching out little lumps with my hand and trying my best not to shove the whole thing off the table while rotating it I wondered how the little older woman could push through the dough so hard! The thing I quickly noticed when I relinquished my turn was the shoving motion she was using with the heel of her hand from the outer rim to the center of the bowl. I had been trying too hard to mix by gripping handfuls and using my fingers (which I would pay for later the next two days my hand has never hurt like that before) The key to her success was much more of a kneading motion. The one thing I realize now that I neglected to take a picture of was the very important step of taking a pinch of the masa and seeing it floats in a glass of water. If the piece floats it is at the right consistency. Ours floated on the first try (which Sandra claimed never happens). However that was the easiest it would get, from there construction got a little.... sticky....

 There are two important features that set Oaxacan tamales apart from the ones you may have had before, #1 they are wrapped in Banana leaves instead of the typically seen corn husks, #2 the meat filling is mixed with delicious flavorful Mole (a spice and chocolate based sauce) adding incredibly dynamic flavor. We each filled bowls with masa, mole, and a blend of chicken & pork meat which had been cooked tender earlier and torn into small pieces. Through out it was hard to not continuously nibble on pieces of meat dipped in the rich deep mole! A large bowl of the banana leaves that had been soaked earlier to soften was placed in the middle and we got to work!
With a paper towel we would wipe the moisture off a chosen piece of banana leaf (most about 8in x 11in like a standard piece of printer paper, although each slightly unique in size) then from edge to edge we would spread the masa over the entire leaf. I learned quickly after my first one not to get too heavy handed with the masa as they become harder to roll and more likely to crack the thicker it is. In the center roughly a quarter cup of the shredded meat is piled on which a healthy spoonful on mole is poured. Additional mole is dripped over the rest of the masa for added flavor. From there we fold the bottom third up over the meat, the top third down over that and the two sides are folded in to create the complete packet. It is then tied with a thin strip of the banana leaf and set aside to be steamed. Sounds easy enough right?
It was easy until we notice an unfortunate trend. Many of the leaves were cracking as soon as we folded them. It was debated whether they were harvested to old or maybe needed to soak longer, with many we found it easiest to double wrap and extra smaller strip around to keep too much of the masa from oozing out. It was often tricky to get a strip that was pliable enough to tie but we all did the best we could.
Once we had used up all the prepared banana leaves a wire bed was placed in a large pot and water filled to the bed which is then covered with corn husks and the tamales piled on top. From there they steam for an hour and a half. Although ours might not have been the prettiest- they were by far the tastiest I have ever tried. The sweet masa blending with the smoky spiciness of the mole and the tender meat was delectable. I don't think the regular store bought tamales will ever cut it again for me and I hope to be able to make lots more next year!

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