It is inevitable that during the course of any travelers wanderings in Latin America they will eventually stare down a plate containing a soggy banana leaf that is wrapped tightly around a mashed together bundle of corn meal, meat, vegetables, and other assorted ingredients. These are called tamales in most Latino countries, or pasteles in others. They are a pre-Hispanic influenced food that both the ancient Maya and Inca are said to have eaten.
I generally don’t go for tamales when I have a choice of other foods to eat — my initial sampling of this food in Central and South American and the Caribbean have left me not desiring further trials. But as with most foods that are made across large expanses of geography, I know that there are vastly differing local variations in how tamales are made and the ingredients that are used.
On Dia de la Candelaria in San Cristobal de las Casas last week the church plazas were full of vendors who were selling just one thing: tamales. The tradition is that the night before Three Kings Day families gather together and eat Rosca de Reyes (king’s cake). There is a little plastic baby Jesus baked inside of this cake, and the person who gets this piece needs to have a party and buy everyone tamales on Dia de la Candelaria. It is suppose to be auspicious to get the baby Jesus, but it is an honor that most Mexicans would rather defer to another family member. The baby Jesus in the king’s cake has become a sort of religious hot potato.
I walked through a mass of temporary tamale booths set up in the plazas for Dia de la Candelaria, and figured that I would give this food a try once again. I pulled up to a table and ordered a couple tamales with mole sauce.
I’m told that a good tamal begins and ends with the dough, which is made from corn flour. The care that is put into this part of the preparation process can make a tamal taste great or make it nearly inedible. I’ve eaten enough dry, clumpy, and gritty tamales in my travels to know that this is a delicate process. Once the dough is made, fillings are added — which can be an assortment of meats, cheeses, vegetables, refried beans, or even sweetened dried fruits. The fillings are then mixed with the dough and then wrapped tightly in a banana leaf and then boiled or steamed.
Two mole tamales were placed in front of me and I had to convince myself that I was looking at a food prior to its becoming excrement. Needless to say, the soggy dark brown mash did not look appetizing, but it tasted truly excellent. The corn flour had pulled pork in it and everything was soaked in mole sauce. I ordered another.
Want to anger a culture? Insult their food
I’ve had an onerous time of reporting about tamales and pasteles in the past — the results of which have provoked people from around the world to send waves of insults my way:
If you don’t like tamales you should go home and eat at McDonalds!!!!
One sure way for a travel writer to get a lot of passionate responses to to say that you don’t like some type of food. You can talk politics, make offensive jokes, or outright insult a culture in writing, but you often don’t truly strike a chord until you make fun of someone else’s food. Food is one topic that the people of this planet do not joke about.
(Go to Pasteles en Hoja: Worst Food Ever.)
It is to the tamale defending readers that that I make this peace offering. I must say that they were correct: a bad tamal is a poorly made tamal, when they are prepared properly they are truly an excellent food.