Reflections on food traditions and tamales
Making tamales, 2021
At this very end of 2021, I find myself reflecting on a year both stunted by an on-going pandemic and a year of firsts as my baby niece turned one year old and we considered new ways of being together, in family. We didn't want to take our time together for granted yet we also wanted to be cautious and care for each other. It was a year of trying to strike a balance, of taking advantage of the outdoors, of placing limits on our old family traditions and parties and trying something new. This year we made tamales as a whole family for the first time.
I come from a relatively large family. I am the oldest of 5. My father comes from a family of 8 and my mother, a family of 6. We have many aunts, uncles, and cousins. We (the "kids," as it were) are mostly of an age where we have a few children, where our cousins also have children and their children are having children. We enjoy getting together, both sides. When I would say "Oh, I'm just inviting the family to the party" that often meant that AT LEAST 30 people would be in attendance. And I LOVED it. I enjoyed cooking and prepping and planning. I enjoyed making the music playlists, putting our outfits together, and making the beverages. I loved feeling the life and energy. Without those gatherings, days have not been measured quite the same. And I always feel like I'm missing out on something. Maybe you can relate.
When Kahlo was born, I vowed to create lasting family food traditions. We began when she was 2, making tamales. At 3, we started making hot chocolate, At 4, she learned how to make chicha morada, and so on. And yet, these traditions I shared with her alone. She is an only child and I am a single parent.
Kahlo and I have had great cooking adventures over the years. We've made any number of specialty beverages, ice creams, cakes, cookies, risotto, pizza, and still tamales (every year!). It's always been a joy to be with her in the kitchen. It's always been amazing to watch her grasp measurement and movement, timing and tasting, mixing and making any number of things. I wanted us both to embody this knowledge from the inside, out. There was something missing, however. It was coming together where we could all take part in learning and laughing that I needed. We needed. When I finally felt I was ready to host these types of endeavors, the pandemic hit.
Fast forward to 2020. The pandemic was in full swing. Our family gatherings halted. Kahlo and I continued to cook and bake and have a great time with food while alone. Still, it was missing that extra energy from our family. In the midst of all this, Kahlo's little baby cousin was born. And something began shifting in our family dynamic. It was a slow burn that continued through the year. Then as 2021 rolled around we found ourselves able to be vaccinated and gather a bit, even if the gatherings were smaller overall. Some familiarity began to resurface and it felt really good.
One day not too long ago, out of the blue, Kahlo received a book about making tamales and family traditions called, May Your Life Be Deliciosa. Turns out Kahlo's titi (aunt) sent to her as surprise. She mentioned she would loved to share this tradition with the family. So, this year I hosted our very first tamal making party for Christmas. We gathered over a few hours, ate together, and then got to making chicken tamales with two different types of masa (one more Peruvian-style, the other more Tejana-style). We ended up making maybe 80 all together, each of us taking a bunch home. Mine, I steamed them up for Nochebuena and for Christmas Day. It felt so sweet to be together like this. Teaching, learning, making, sharing. The kids played, the adults chatted, we listened to music, and we didn't have anywhere specific to be. Just with each other. I hope we can continue this tradition for many more years to come!
While I already have a recipe for tamales on this blog (linked above), I thought I'd leave another variation of masa, or dough, for consideration. Peruvian tamales, or humitas, can be both savory and sweet. They use either fresh choclo or dried mote. The simple recipe I'm leaving below is using dried mote just to give a lil variation. Buen provecho, amig@s!
Masa para tamales simples- Makes about 40 tamales
2 bags Peruvian mote (14 oz each)
1 1/2 cups water
1 large white onion, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon aji amarillo paste
2/3 - 1 cup vegetable oil
6-8 ounces cheese, shredded (muenster or like semi-soft cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste
Water to soak corn kernels
Vegetable oil for sautéing
In a large bowl, place dried corn kernels and cover with water. Allow to soak overnight then discard water.
In a blender, add rehydrated kernels and water. Blend until smooth.
In a large pot, heat oil and sauté onions until translucent.
Add garlic, salt, pepper and aji amarillo. Sauté for 1 more minute.
Add corn puree and cook for 10 minutes.
Add half of the oil and all of cheese. Cook for 5 more minutes.
Add more salt, if needed.
If the dough is still too stiff, add a bit more oil as needed. You will know it's done when the dough stops sticking to the side of the pot.
Note: Instead of the dried mote you can use frozen choclo. Allow it to thaw and add a little less water before blending.
Another note: To keep this vegan, omit cheese and add a bit more salt and/or oil to get the right flavor and consistency. Adding nutritional yeast will also lend a cheesy flavor to the dough.