Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tamales: A Tutorial

Just kidding, I am a tamale making novice for sure! We had a very special service this past Sunday. Our church was celebrating a couple things which I will share in another post, but for a celebration of course you need party food! Tamales are the ultimate party food. So here is how you make them. I tried to take lots of photos with my phone while we worked.
Sweet Rebeca lives down the street from our church building. This woman is full of grace (she's one of my favorites). She offered to let us prep and cook the tamales at her house. Several other ladies volunteered to be there at 8:00 to help as well. Well it's not like people sit around watching the clock in this country and beyond that most are dependent on public transportation. There are a lot more variables to deal with when it comes to getting somewhere on time here! For the first several hours it was just Rebecca, Wendy her teenage daughter, Marta another kind mother in our church who only speaks Kekchi, two other teens from our church and I working on them. I thought we had plenty of help, but Rebeca seemed a little concerned at first. Our goal at the beginning of the day was 120 tamales. We knocked out 160 by 1:30 like it was nothing! I think it was the quality of the workers, haha! 

First it's rainy season, so it's hard to find dry firewood. I have experience buying propane, not firewood, so in my defense I would like to say that I knew what was going to happen beforehand, so I specifically asked M, one of the teenage girls to go with me. If some gringa shows up somewhere looking to buy something that she obviously knows nothing about she is more than likely going to get ripped off! Finding dry firewood seems foolproof, but nothing is. So M helped me find 100 pieces of "good" firewood for sale. 
 Sure enough we got back and some bad pieces had been mixed in and who got made fun of? Me! I will always be a gringa. The wood on the right is not good for firewood. It doesn't burn, it just smokes real bad. Now I know!
Our first task was making the red sauce. Probably no one makes tamales the exact same way. We have eaten all kinds of tamales all over Guatemala. Rebeca's recipe though had a wonderful flavor (Jimmy went home after church and had 3 more!)

 Rebeca had already been roasting guajillo chilies on her stove when we arrived. She also toasted some sesame seeds.
 You know the chilies are ready if when you pick them up and shake them you can hear the seeds rattling around inside. Then you tear off the stem and dump the seeds out saving the chili.
Then we cut up onions, green peppers, red tomatoes and little green tomatoes that they call miltomates
 We also cut up red bell peppers into thin slices. Rebeca meant for these to be thrown on top before we wrapped up the tamale, but someone dumped those into the red sauce... not me!
Rebeca put all of these ingredients a little at a time into her blender. From what I have seen, a blender is the one kitchen appliance that is pretty common here. People have those before refrigerators or gas stoves. Then she started it all to boil on her wood burning stove.
 She also added chicken bullion, achiote paste, 
pepitoria (pumpkin seed) powder that she dissolved in water first,
 and saborizante. I didn't realize this until recently when I saw a brand of it that had the English under it, but in English that is MSG. 
The red sauce boiled for quite a while, long enough for us to take the corn to be milled. Rebeca and Marta are so nice to me. They do not treat me like a gringa. When they were trying to decided which mill to use they showed me some masa (corn dough) and asked me what I thought about the texture. 

Here is something I thought was funny. 
Rebeca and I were struggling holding either side of the heavy tub of corn (not in this photo obviously), but Marta just grabs the whole tub after it had been milled to take back to the truck like it was nothing. Kekchi women are strong!  
It cost about 10Q I think to mill this amount. They turn a generator on so you are paying for the gasoline. People have small hand crank grinders in their house, but to do this amount would have taken forever. The bucket on top has water in it that they pour over the corn. 
It was about 50 pounds of masa. We made 160 tamales with it and probably had over half of it left.
Hugo (Rebeca's grandson) went and bought 17 chicken halves that morning. 

I said that we needed at least 7 pieces out of each half to end up with enough meat. I thought they were going to be disappointed. They thought the pieces were really large and then our church people that night were going on and on about how much meat was in their tamales and how that was so special. (Living in this country makes me so thankful for the amount of meat that our family gets to eat. I think about that a lot now as I sit down at meals and I'm grateful!)

They kept acting like they wanted me to cut the chicken. I would have been hacking at the chicken for the rest of the day. So Marta picks up a machete and takes care of it. (That was the first cutting board I had seen all day too. It was borrowed from a neighbor.) One whack and she was through the bone. Spending time in the kitchen with these women has given me even more respect for them. Cooking in Petén is a physical workout!
They put some of the saborizante on the chicken meat too. Now it was time to start preparing the dough.

Rebeca separated some of the masa into the largest pot she had. We filled it with water and then started smushing it with our hands to get all the lumps out.

Then we put it on a fire outside and stirred and stirred.

And stirred and stirred some more. Lots of salt was added to this.

 Marta brought some Mashan leaves from her garden.
 You usually hear about banana leaves being used to make tamales, but I think these kind of leaves are better. They wrap up much prettier. Here is the same kind of plant on our porch:
They are about 4 feet tall. I think they are really pretty. 
I didn't help with this part, but I did take pictures! Wendy and M washed all of the leaves in the pila. I've talked about this several times before, but that sink is a household staple here. The middle chamber is like a cistern and the drains on either side are for laundry and dishes. You stand next to it and dump water over your head to take a bath. 

We did eventually run out of the mashan leaves since we made so many extra tamales. We got some banana leaves from Rebeca's yard to finish the rest. They run them over a fire like she is doing below to strengthen the leaves. You can see the color changing to a more vivid green.

Here is all of our fixin's ready for assembly:
This is about the time more ladies started showing up. They cut the leaves to prepare them. 
Basically you need one entire leaf and then one or two halves more to go on top to keep the leaves from splitting once you fold it all up. 
First you put a spoonful of boiled dough, then your raw meat, and then a little bit of chile sauce.  We were going to drop some red bell pepper slices on top, but they had already been mixed in to the sauce and sank to the bottom of the pot. It is common to add olives as well, but we didn't.

Then you pull it together length wise and roll it like you would a brown lunch sack. Then you turn it upside down and fold it on either end popping the stem going through the leaf which kind of holds the tamales closed.
 Our first tamales:
 Marta lined the same huge pot we used to cook the dough with leaves and then gently placed the tamales inside. Then she added water and covered the top with more leaves to help steam them.
It takes a little under and hour to steam them. 

I really enjoyed sharing this time with these ladies. They were so kind and patient to teach me their craft! I smelled like a bon fire when I got home. I took a shower before church to wash the smoke out of my hair. Those ladies are such hard workers in less than ideal conditions and they don't even think anything of it... and I still get frustrated when the power goes out at my house while I'm cooking supper. I took a lot away from my time with them!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, teamwork! And you didn't even mention the fact that the whole corn kernels had to be soaked and boiled the day before!

    You also didn't mention crying over the smoke. Whenever I'm cooking over wood fires I start tearing up and all the guatemalan ladies start laughing at me.

    It always amazes me how comfortable guatemalan woman are with cooking in mass quantities. Cooking for a large group would terrify most gringas, but Guatemalan ladies are so used to calculating recipes for large groups, it's like second nature for them! They also are very eager and willing to help out at a friends house to cook up a feast for a velorio or a posada or a wedding or baptism or what have you.


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