|Tamales placed in water to boil them|
Walking past performing monkeys and birds in the streets, I neared the most important pilgrimage site in Mexico. Large quantities of candles were in piles, outside the walls of the church. Inside, lines of people were organized so they could walk quickly past the portrait of the Virgen de Guadalupe, much in the way people are hurried by on a belt when they go to see the Queen´s jewels in the Tower of London.
Later, in the downtown area, a group of performers, colorfully dressed in feathers and the traditional clothing that the Aztec indians once wore, dance to the beats of drums, entrancing tourists, who feel that they have travelled in a time machine that takes them back many hundred years back.
Back to a time when tamales were eaten by high priests.
History of Tamales in General
The aztecs and mayan indians made and ate tamales. These were often had only during festivities or special occasions, such as weddings or Christmas. Its presentation certainly matches the occasion--they look like wrapped presents! Their preparation was and often still constitutes a ritual in itself; tamales are thus believed to be full of symbolism. Some go so far as to associate the tamal with the womb and Mother Nature.
The tamal, (which means wrapped), a staple in much of Latin America, is made of corn flour. It is usually savory and contains chicken, and sometimes is sweet and has raisins. It is not usually chocolate-flavored nor does it have a strawberry filling--except in some places of Mexico and Guatemala, where the black tamal, or "tamal negro", is served for weddings. In Mexico, where there are hundreds of varieties of tamales, chocolate is mixed into the dough as well, and in Guatemala, the dough has cinnamon and the chocolate sauce goes in the center. Apparently there is also a Colombian version of the chocolate tamal.
Recipe (adapted from Cocina Latinoamericana, 2005, by Elisabeth Luard)
2 1/2 tbsps. honey
1/2 pound of corn flour
2 tbsps. hot water
9 tbsps. cocoa
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
3 oz. Mexican or Central American chocolate, grated
8 banana leaves
juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 pound of strawberries
Mix the honey, corn flour, hot water, cocoa, butter, vanilla, salt, and Mexican or Central American chocolate until you form a ball of dark, chocolate-colored dough. Cut the strawberries in quarters and toss gently with lime juice. Heat the banana leaves briefly over a flame or over the stove burner to make them more pliable.
How to wrap the tamales.
If you don´t have any banana leaves, you could use aluminum foil, though it is better to use the leaves.
First, you place a rectangle of dough on the left corner of the banana leaf, that is closest to you. You place a teaspoonful of filling in the center (in this case, three strawberry quarters plus a few drops of the liquid, and a couple of chocolate chips). Next, you start wrapping the leaf starting at the end closest to you, rolling in the direction farthest from you.
When you finish rolling, turn over the tamal so the ends of the leaf are touching the counter, then press with both hands at the same time, starting at the ends and pushing the dough towards the center, and pressing hard. Then fold the two ends, left and right, underneath, so they touch the counter.
Place the wrapped tamales in a pot with some water. It can be tricky because you need to make sure the tamales are tightly wrapped so water won´t seep in during the cooking process. Alternately, if you are afraid the water will seep in, the option most people go for is to place them a tamale pot, or in a pot where only the vapor will cook the tamales, and the water will boil underneath, without touching the pot that holds the tamales.
Cook the tamales for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, pour out the water, and serve in their leaves. Make a slit in the center of the leaf, so the fork or spoon can be inserted to pull the food out of the leaf. If they won´t be eaten immediately, let them cool before placing them in a container in the refrigerator or freezer (for a longer time of storage). You don´t want to put them away hot because the condensation will wet the dough.
You can also remove the tamal completely from the leaf and serve accordingly, with a strawberry for a decoration.
While you´re at it, and have a lot of leftover banana leaves, why not think of making savory tamales too? That´s what I did...
Other decadent, unusual tamal versions: