My father in law Henry says to me, “I’ve arranged for Tomas’ wife Lachina to teach you how to make her special tamales. Is that ok with you?”
Hmmmmm let’s see, do I want to spend the day with a lovely family in Oaxaca in their home learning how to make one of my favourite foods? Of course!
We were picked up at 10am by Tomas, the most wonderful driver in Oaxaca, and taken to his house just outside of the Centro. Upon arrival we were warmly greeted by his wife Lachina, their neighbour and her two daughters Olivia and Marella. But there was no time to linger, making tamales is a process, (as we were about to learn) so we started making the tamales right away.
Lachina cuts the big banana leaves into smaller pieces.
Olivia shows us the banana leave with the spine taken off and cut into smaller pieces.
Lachina stacks the banana leaves, bundles them and then ties them with their spines.
The bundled leaves are put into boiling water to soften.
Whole chickens are boiled the night before and shredded. The broth is reserved to use for the tamale’s masa mixture.
Dried corn plus limestone is soaked overnight and then taken to the molinar (the town mill) to be ground into masa.
Chicken stock and salt are added to the masa and the then the mixing begins.
Lard gets added to mixture. I never realized how much lard was needed to make a delicious tamale.
The leaves are done when the ribs are the colour of coffee, which is around 30 minutes.
A cazuela is put onto the stove with oil. This fantastic stove is made out of a metal barrel, filled with concrete almost to the top and the fire pit is made of pressed earth. Slow burning iron wood is their wood of choice.
Mole rojo and negro are presented. What makes these moles unique compared to the ones I’ve been eating is that they’re from Yutanicani, south-west of Oaxaca. The main difference? Less sugar= more deliciousness.
Whole tomatoes are stewed in water for an hour.
The tomatoes are blended and then put into the sizzling hot oiled cazuela.
A generous pinch of salt is added and the tomatoes bubble away. With this wood burning stove, you can’t adjust the heat, so you have to watch with a careful eye to avoid burning.
Meanwhile, the masa is still being mixed by hand to achieve the right consistency. More lard is added as well as a pinch of baking powder.
The very special Yuta mole rojo is added to the pot to simmer. Mole rojo is the most “traditional” mole. This one had complex flavours of chiles, nuts, cinnamon but unlike traditional Oaxacan rojo’s, no chocolate and only a bit of sugar.
The delicately shredded chicken is added to the pot to simmer.
The masa is kneaded and mixed for over an hour, adding this and that through the process. A learned hand can tell when the masa is at the right consistency.
We’re called to the table because the masa is “ready”. The softened banana leaves are unbundled and assembly begins.
The masa is spread out almost to the edges in a thin layer. We learned later that thinner is better as it creates a more delicate balance in the final product.
A large spoonful of chicken is placed into the middle.
Then the tamales are wrapped. The first fold…
and over with the second fold, making sure you don’t press too hard…
and in to the center with the 3rd fold, ever careful not to rip the leaf…
with the fourth fold you have a nice little package.
The scraps of banana leaves are put into the bottom of a steamer. The finished tamale bundles are placed carefully inside.
As we finish with wrapping the rojo, the mole negro is ready and the assembly continues. Mole negro is a complex blends of nuts, fruits, chocolate and chiles. This mole negro has ruined me to all others that follow because it swooned me with the subtlety of its sweetness.
It wasn’t all photo taking for me, I got in on the action too!
During the process, we ran out of banana leaves. No worries, Lachina went to the yard and cut down some more. These are softened over the stove to save time.
Tomas’ English is very good, but if we got stuck he was quick to pull out his Spanish-English dictionary. There was something about Tomas that reminded me of my father.
I spent time taking photos of Marella and then showing her what I had taken. It’s in moments like these, where I love travelling.
After an hour and a half of steaming the tamales are finally done.
We all had to get in for a taster. Hands down, this was the best tamale I’ve ever had.
We continued to finish both the tamales with mole negro and sweet dulce tamales. I have always enjoyed tamales and it’s one of those things that I seem to buy whenever I see them sold. I think that following this experience I have now become a tamale aficionado and that I know what makes a good tamale now, (lots of lard it seems). I have also realized 2 things after making these tamales. 1) They’d be impossible to re-create at home. 2) I will never flinch if I see someone selling a tamale for $5 a piece. Now that I know how much work is involved, I know why they charge so much.
A very special thank you goes out to the Ramirez family for letting us into their homes for my most memorable and genuine experience in Oaxaca. Their warmth and friendship will always be remembered.
Gracias Tomas y Lachina!