Sunday, December 29, 2013

And the 2013 Best Homemade Mexican Tamal Award Goes To…

Olga García Echeverría

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as unwrapping and gorging on steaming tamales on Christmas Eve. Toasting them on a hot comal or frying them in a cazuela the following days is also part of the tamal tradition. But anyone who’s ever been part of a tamaleada, knows that making tamales is no joke. It’s at least a two-day production and it takes a village because if you’re going to make tamales, the unspoken rule is that you must make hundreds. 

Why do we insist on making so many tamales? Maybe we do it to feed everyone we love. Maybe it’s our need to bond. Maybe we want a damn good, homemade tamal and we don’t want to risk buying a bad or mediocre one. Maybe we do it to preserve las recetas de nuestra familia or to create new ones. Maybe we want to prove we’re really Mexican. Or maybe we do it because beneath all the layers, we are simply masa. 

For those of us who grew up in a tamal-making culture or family, December is the Holy Month of Masa. ‘Tis the season for tamales. It’s true that in some ways it’s always tamal season in LA. These ancient, culinary, hoja-wrapped bundles can be found year-around on barrio street corners, parking lots, panaderías, super mercados and restaurants. In the City of Angels, tamales nunca faltan. 

Yet, those of us who have masa in our DNA know that regardless of how ubiquitous tamales have become in Los Angeles, a real good tamal is really hard to find. Whether homemade or not, tamales usually suffer from some type of masa issue. The masa is too thick. The masa is too dry. The masa is too hard. The masa is too flan-like. The masa lacks sabor. The ratio of masa to filling is highly unbalanced. Or the masa is just not masa. (Side note: corn masa across the board is most likely genetically modified, which is a masa issue so big in scope that it requires its own separate and future blog). 

In my opinion, the worst tamales are the mass produced ones at Latino supermarkets and restaurants. The most disappointing tamal I ever tasted was from a well-known Mexican restaurant in East LA that actually “specializes” in tamales. I recall having this restaurant’s tamales as a child and yeah, they were pretty good, but overproduction transformed the once delicious, homemade fluffy masa into a thick, chewy, frozen and reheated mess. Massacre of the Masa. 

Street tamales are hit and miss. Sometimes they’re okay for the purpose at hand--a quick, inexpensive meal that satisfies hunger on the go. But would I order them for Christmas dinner? Probably not. A couple of years ago, I bought some excellent pollo con chile verde tamales from a woman in the parking lot at the local Home Depot. She was from Sinaloa, and she was selling her steaming creations out of a Styrofoam ice-chest in her car. Shhht! Shhhht! ¿Quieres tamales? Later at home, I peeled them open and admired the masa texture. They were spicy and scrumptious. I went back soon after to order more, but she was gone. I have yet to see this fabulous tamal-making Sinaloense again. 

When my father died this past September, my siblings and I ordered tamales for his wake from a neighborhood señor and señora. This couple, originally from Tlaltenango, Zacatecas, sells tamales out of their home and by barrio word-of-mouth. My eldest sister, Anna, who knows a good tamal when she eats one, described this couple’s tamales as “really good,” and that was enough to convince the rest of us to purchase them for my father’s despedida. Like crazy Mexicans, we ordered 400 tamales. There were only about 100 people, including children, at my father’s services, but the Tlaltenango tamales were a smash. They all disappeared, and even the old-school, hardcore tamal-makers from the Mother Country gave their seal of approval, which was comforting, since my father really loved to eat and he would have been happy that we were celebrating the end of his life with real good Mexican tamales.

Our Family with a Big Picture of My Father, Who Loved Tamales: Photo taken by Maritza Alvarez
We were so pleased with the Tlaltenango tamales that we ordered them for Christmas. But as we peeled open our corn husks, we saw that something was different--the masa was thicker and a bit waxy. The meat filling also had more flame than flavor. They were, in the end, still decent tamales, but they were definitely not as great as the last batch we had purchased. What could have happened to the once exquisite Tlaltenango tamales? Too many Christmas orders for the couple?

In short, buying tamales is risky business, especially on special occasions, and good tamales are hard to come by. This is why so many Latinos go corn-husk and banana-leaf crazy over the holidays, roll-up their mangas, put on their aprons and make their own batches. I admire and respect these tamal troopers, which brings me to the title of this blog. I ate a lot of tamales in 2013--green chile, red chile, pollo, rajas, elote, mole, tamales en hoja de platano, tamales en hierba santa, tamales con hoja de aguacate, and the list goes on. Of all the tamales I devoured in 2013, The Best Homemade Mexican Tamal Award goes to (drum roll)….

East Los Angeles Homegirl, Escritora, and Attorney at Law, Sandra C. Muñoz

and her primo, Miguel Campos,
AKA The Tamal Whisperer

Miguel Campos sitting in front of his tamales

For the past few years, my girlfriend and I have made it a tradition to visit Sandra C. Muñoz in East LA and eat some of her family’s tamales before heading over to Christmas dinner at my sister’s. Blood may be thicker than water, but it is not thicker than corn masa. 

Sandra’s primo, Miguel Campos, who Sandra refers to as The Tamal Whisperer, prepares the masa and makes the traditional tamales of chile rojo con puerco. When I asked Sandra what is the secret to their delicious tamales, she said they buy masa preparada at Superior or Super A like most people, but then they add “other ingredients.” Other ingredients is code for more manteca.  “It’s all in balancing the masa and the filling,” says Sandra, “and you also have to know how to spread the masa just right so that when it cooks and you open the tamal, a thin layer of masa is the first thing you can peel off the husk.” 

Unlike Miguel’s, Sandra tamales are not so traditional. Miguel’s pork tamales used to be my favorite, but for the past three years, Sandra has created a new tamal every Christmas. Two years ago it was bacon, cheese, and jalapeño. These are lip smacking good, especially recalentados with a fried huevo and café. Last year, Sandra’s new tamal was bellini and baby bella mushrooms with cheese. This delectable tamal is currently my favorite. It's rich and buttery and at the same time light, since it's meatless. And this year, Sandra went really wild and made blueberry tamales, strawberry tamales, and cherry and chocolate tamales. 

Sandra's Tamales de Dulce
I must admit, I am not a big fan of sweet tamales and when I first heard of the blueberry idea I was fascinated, yet doubtful. The outcome, though, was pretty tasty, with pineapple chunks, raisins and pecans in the blueberry mix. When I asked Sandra why she chose blueberry, she said she wanted to venture into the sweet tamal realm and that she had originally thought of making a peanut butter and jelly tamal, but there was limited masa and she had to be selective. She also had several people question her idea of using blueberries. Blueberries, according to some, were too fancy and seemed out of place in a Mexican tamal. "Why too fancy?" Sandra asked. "What? Mexicans don't eat blueberries? That's stupid." So, being the rebel that she is she forged ahead with her blueberries and her masa. 

Sandra's Raw Blueberry Masa
When I asked her where the blueberries came from and if they were fresh or frozen, she stared at me, stretched out her arms and said in a sing-song voice, “From the organic fields of the hidden valleys along the California Coast. I picked them myself.” Then she cracked up and added, “Eh! Just kidding. I don't want to ruin it for you, but it’s blueberry pie filling from the local supermarket.” What?! I was a little surprised, but it hasn't stopped me from eating Sandra's blueberry tamales or from being amazed at her unorthodox masa creations. 

It’s not just the blueberry pie filling, or the soft juicy mushrooms, or the extra manteca that gives the Campos Muñoz tamales their flavor; it’s also la mano de obra, la bateada, la energía, la creatividad and the team effort. Sandra’s sisters, Arcelia and Olga, and their cousin Dora also help con la tamaleada. Dora se pone a embarrar endless hojas. Arcelia se pone a limpiar, which is no small task in a tamal-making kitchen. Y Olga a veces le entra al mole y a veces no. Either way, she's a professional tamal tester. La mera-mera matriarch of the familia, Doña Socorro, however, sits and observes. Sometimes she plays cards while the tamales steam. She looks at the clock, "Ya mero acaban?" They're using her kitchen and she wants to go to sleep. I love Doña Socorro. She is hilarious and hardcore. Sandra tells the story of how her mother stopped making tamales as a protest many years ago. Sandra and other family members committed a grave sin one Christmas eve by going to King Taco. They just wanted a few tacos, but Doña Socorro was furious that anyone would go eat at King Taco when there were fresh tamales at home that she had slaved over. As punishment, Doña Socorro vowed to never-ever make tamales for her family again. It’s been about 20 years and she has kept her word. In the absence of the matriarch’s tamales, Sandra and Miguel stepped up to the plate and continued the tamal-making tradition. Bravo to them and to all the families who are continuing the tamal-making tradition, cada quien a su manera. 

Happy tamal season everyone and feliz año nuevo.


msedano said...

drat! this leaves me hungry for a tamal, or como dimos en chicano, a tamale. but all i have is left-over enchiladas. happy new year, olga, and congratulations to la tamalera of the year, sandra c. muñoz.


There's nothing making a tamal deal in dark parking lot.

Andrea Mauk said...

A mouthwatering article, indeed. There's a lady in Pico-Union that makes awesome tamales and sells them out of a cooler in a cart on the street corner. I guess it's about trying all of the tamales in L.A. until you find the best for you. Congratulations, Sandra! Tamalera of the year is like winning a food Oscar, I think.

Olga said...

Thanks for your comments. I kept harassing Sandra for more tamales while prepping for this blog. "Sandra, I need more tamales for writing research." I ate more than wrote and suffered several tamal hangovers, but it was worth it. I LOVE good tamales!

Unknown said...

Jajaja I like it.. la historia de mi tia hizo cientos de tamales para la navidad. Y comieron tamales por tres diaz..

Unknown said...

Hi Sandra:
I ran across this while looking for something on my computer. How are you? Are you still processing law or are you writing? Those tamales look really good.
Dick Bonneau