Making tamales

Though it’s become a lot easier to find good Mexican food in London since I moved here in 2010, it’s still pretty hard to find tamales. I was in the mood for them over the weekend so tried making them for the first time.

Edit 14.05.16 — I’ve changed my mind, I’m not really that pleased with how these turned out. They’re too dry, and I definitely didn’t fill them with enough cheese. Also, I don’t know where the heck Sainsbury’s gets their jalapeños from but they were just about the hottest ones I’ve ever had! I think that the main issue was the fine cornmeal, so will definitely wait until I find some masa before making these again. I’ve found a good way of eating too-dry tamales though; they’re really good reheated in the oven with a spicy tomato sauce and plenty of cheese (kind of like enchiladas).

Edit 30.10.18 — A shop in Brixton Village sells masa and corn husks!!! I think it was Faiz Latin & Carribean (corner of 1st and 5th). Time for tamales v2.0.


Now I know why tamales are scarce — it’s very difficult to find masa harina and corn husks. I tried searching for them as well as banana leaves and bamboo leaves with no luck. Banana leaves are used to wrap tamales in southern Mexico so would have been a good substitute, though they impart a slightly different flavour. I didn’t realise that they’re generally kept in the freezer so will have to search there next time. Bamboo leaves are less authentic, though they are used to encapsulate something similar called zongzi. Masa harina is not miles away from fine corn meal, however they differ in that masa undergoes nixtamalization.

In the end, I used Alton Brown’s tamal dough ingredients and ratios since he uses cornmeal with stock instead of cooking water. Big bags of fine cornmeal were easy to find in our more local shops that carry a lot of west Asian and African ingredients. For the corn husks, I used pieces of parchment paper (24×18cm) and butcher string.

For the dough making method, I used the Serious Eats guide to tamal making which includes tips such as floating a spoonful of the dough in water to test lightness and a guide to rolling tamales. For the filling, I stuck to queso y rajas since I was able to find fresh jalapeños. Oaxacan cheese was never going to be on the menu, so I subbed it for equal parts of fresh white salad cheese (kind of like feta but less pungent and salty) and mild cheddar. I don’t have a steamer, so coiled a long foil “snake” in the base of the pot to keep the tamales out of the simmering water.

All in all, the tamales were pretty good even though there were a lot of substitutes. A few things to improve upon:

  • The filling was a little measley, could use more in each tamal.
  • The tamales were quite yellow. Not a huge problem, but worth noting.
  • The dough was a little stodgy and not as light as I would have liked. I probably could have beat more air in to the dough, but I also think that it is more difficult to form a dough with cornmeal than with masa harina. Maybe try cooking the cornmeal with liquid to form a paste that is similar to fresh masa in consistency if you have to use cornmeal again.
  • The parchment paper worked pretty well but seemed to stick a bit to the dough. Again, that could be due to the cornmeal but could also be an issue with the paper.

Those issues may be due to the substitutes or may have just been my unfamiliarity with the recipe. I’ll definitely make them again since they freeze so well and are so easy to microwave in the studio as a snack. Hopefully I’ll have a stash of corn husks and masa harina by the time I make them again.


Edit — Forgot to add, I made this toasted chile de arbol salsa to go with the tamales. It’s seriously hot (I’m embarrassingly wimpy when it comes to spicy stuff) but really tasty.