For cultures with Latin roots, tamales are perhaps the most important celebratory food in existence. Special tamales are regularly prepared for celebrations and feast days ranging from Christmas, New Years and Day of the Dead to Weddings, Christenings and Birthdays. Like many classic foods, tamales can be Zen-like in their simplicity -- a corn dough with or without a few flavorings and/or fillings wrapped up in a cute little package of corn husks or banana leaves (and occasionally other leaves as well) and steamed. But with those few basics, an infinite number of flavors and combinations are possible -- from sweet to savory, mild to spicy, simple to complex and everything in between.
Don't let the thought of making tamales scare you. People make it seem like a bigger deal than it really is. Yes, it takes a little time to set everything up, and you'll probably make a few messy attempts your first few tries. But it's not hard to get the knack, and the whole process really took much less time than I anticipated.
The reactions you'll get when you make tamales are well worth the effort. When I told people I was going to make over 300 homemade tamales for my New Year's party, they looked at me like I was crazy. Even the Latinas working the local Los Angeles Mexican markets claimed their grandmothers didn't even bother to make tamales anymore, preferring to buy them ready made.
But there's nothing like homemade, and the process of making the tamales turned out to be lots of fun. And, by the way, I knew what I was doing. Tamales are a perfect party food -- they are inexpensive to make, everyone loves them and ALL the work can be done well ahead of time.
Tamales are also a great way to bond with friends and family. Get a group together and make a project of it. Everyone will go home with great food and you'll all have a great time creating this classic culinary treasure. Since it takes a bit of time to prepare the doughs and filling for tamales, it's a good idea to make a lot. They freeze extremely well and can be reheated for quick snacks anytime by simply steaming the frozen tamales.
Anatomy of a Tamale
Between the different dough flavorings, fillings and regional styles, you can make endless variations of tamales, but all tamales have certain characteristics in common:
Masa Dough -- Most tamales are made with a masa or specially treated ground corn dough which has been mixed with some type of fat, such as lard, butter or oil and some sort of liquid, such as water or stock. Some nouvelle tamales might use other ingredients such as rice, potatoes or polenta as a base, but for the purposes of this article we will deal with traditional masa tamales. You can also substitute mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes for the fat or oil when making fat-free tamales.
Dough Flavorings --Some people like to keep their masa dough plain, others like to mix flavoring ingredients (such as corn, onions, peppers, etc.) right into the masa dough.
Fillings -- The fillings for tamales are literally infinite -- meats, vegetables, cheese, sauces, salsas, even fruit or chocolate. Use your imagination!
Dried cornhusks are the most common (and easy to find) tamale wrappers. Simply soak the wrappers in warm water for at least 30 minutes before using. Some cultures, especially those in tropical regions, like to use large banana or even avocado leaves to wrap their tamales.