By Marcia Chaiken for The Eye Magazine
Tamales, in addition to being among the most delicious Mexican treats, are a bridge between two holidays and two cultures. On January 6, the celebration of the visit of three kings bearing gifts for the baby in Bethlehem, a cake called rosca de reyes is traditionally served. People who find a tiny figurine of the baby Jesus in their slice of cake are then traditionally obligated to provide tamales on Candlemas, February 2, to all who shared the same rosca.
Why tamales on Candlemas? The day celebrates the first presentation of Jesus at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after his mother Mary (or Miriam in Hebrew) observed the prescribed Jewish rite of purification for mothers who have given birth to a son. One might think that the tamales, wrapped in either corn husks or banana leaves, represent the swaddled infant. However, the one ingredient essential in tamales is corn. And corn, representing life, was always a part of the celebration of the first day of the Aztec year, which coincidentally occurs on February 2.
Tamales appear to have been part and parcel of Aztec cuisine long before the first Christian set foot on the North American continent. We don’t have an Aztec recipe for tamales, but a dear friend, who had found a baby Jesus in her rosca at five different parties one year, involved me in making tamales for the better part of the day before Candlemas in that year. We began by preparing a rich chicken broth, saving the chicken for a filling.
While the broth was simmering, we soaked the corn husks and banana leaves, adding a few drops of disinfectant, drained and dried them. We also prepared a multi-ingredient mole sauce and a green sauce made from tomatillos, onions, cilantro and other greens. Once the broth was ready and cooled, we prepared the corn dough, first adding baking powder and salt to the corn meal (masa) and then progressively beating and beating and beating broth and oil into the mixture until the dough was just firm enough to hold its shape. Our oil replaced the traditional lard used in such recipes, appropriately enough, since for Jewish ritual purposes Joseph and Mary would never have prepared or eaten pork of any kind. The dough rested while we prepared the banana leaves, trimming them and quickly heating them on a grill. Then we assembled the tamales, smearing a thin layer of dough on the corn husks and banana leaves, adding a layer of shredded chicken, topped by a spoonful of mole or green salsa. The leaves and husks were folded over into an envelope that then was placed standing up in a very large steamer. Once the steaming was underway, we cleaned up the considerable mess in the kitchen and then sat gossiping until one tamal (singular of tamales) was tested and found to have a firm layer of dough that easily peeled off the wrapper and contained wonderful mingled tastes of chicken and mole or salsa. Delicious!
Tamales can also be filled with beef, pork, cheese, beans or a combination, and sweet tamales and be prepared using fruits and nuts. But without the corn dough, it’s simply not a tamal. Here’s to tamales, to corn, and to life.