Christmastime in Texas means tamales.
From sunrise to sunset, the air is thick with the smell of masa wafting from open windows. Slowly but surely, the bundles stack up, two dozen, three dozen at a time, before plunging into the steamer or freezer to await their fates. Wrapped with care in corn husks and banana leaves, rather than paper and tinsel, each parcel truly is a gift to receive.
Tamales aren’t just for Christmas, of course. Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs and Mayans, enjoyed tamales as a portable and convenient food source for sustenance during long journeys and battles. Anything and everything was fair game in terms of fillings, from meats and vegetables to sweets like fruits and honey.
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 16th century, their mission to spread Christianity ensnared the humble tamale as a celebratory food. Already a staple of Mexican and Latin American cuisine, tamales have a unique way of symbolizing the spirit of togetherness and unity that defines the holiday season.
Crafting tamales is a labor of love, a communal affair that brings family and friends together. As generations gather in the kitchen, sharing stories and laughter while assembling each bundle one by one, much of their importance is about the actual assembly, rather than the end product alone.
Come For The Craft, Stay For The Feast
Naturally, we wouldn’t be here talking about tamales if it was just a fun arts and craft project. Eye-catching green masa makes a more festive impression than typical yellow cornmeal, especially when offset by equally vibrant salsa roja on top and a red meatless stuffing hidden inside. While I love a simple veggie tamale, often made with zucchini, corn, and all sorts of peppers, I wanted to bring a more substantial offering, that eats like a whole meal, to this dinner party.
Who needs meat when you have tender red beans adding ample amounts of plant-protein, infused with the crimson color of red beets, and amplified by the naturally meaty richness of Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms?
Roughly chopped caps and stems create the compelling illusion of ground beef, deeply umami and toothsome in a way that defies written descriptions. Somehow juicy, chewy, tender, and springy all at once, the thicker Koshin variety are unparalleled in their quality. If you splurge on just one thing this holiday season, make it the mushrooms.
Corn Husks vs. Banana Leaves
Corn husk-wrapped tamales are more commonly seen across Texas, as an easily accessible, affordable ingredient, also owing to their Mexican heritage. Banana leaves, on the other hand, are favored in some Central and South American regions. I’m not going to say that one is better than the other, but after finally finding frozen banana leaves at H-Mart, I can’t go back.
Ready to use right out of the package rather than waiting for them to soak, they’re quicker and easier to work with, large and accommodating for any amount of filling, flexible and less likely to tear, and most importantly, incredibly fragrant. Subtly floral, slightly fruity, and even reminiscent of freshly cut grass, it reminds me of pandan, if it was spoken at a whisper.
That said, the flavor imparted by banana leaves is quite gentle and won’t overwhelm the flavors of the dish. Instead, it complements and enhances the food, adding a touch of tropical freshness and a subtle layer of complexity. Banana leaves also retain more moisture, yielding the most succulent tamales I’ve ever had.
Once you’ve decided on your wrapper, you have more choices left to make: What’s the best way to cook tamales?
- Steaming is recommended, as a time-honored method that never fails. There’s more than one way to steam, however, which brings me to my favorite approach…
- Pressure cooking gives you the same results as stove-top steaming, in a fraction of the time. Plus, it helps keep the kitchen cooler; an important consideration for balmy Texas weather.
- Grilling is a great alternative, taking the party outside, and imparting a wonderful smoky flavor to the food.
- Baking in the oven can work, in a pinch, but does create a firmer, drier texture. For best results, place the tamales in a baking dish alongside a ramekin of water, and wrap the whole thing tightly with foil to keep the steam inside.
Make-Ahead and Storage Tips
To ease the holiday hustle and bustle, you can make these tamales ahead of time. After they have cooled completely, store them in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to three days. Alternatively, freeze them for longer storage, making sure to wrap each tamale individually before placing them in a freezer-safe bag or container. Reheat tamales by steaming or microwaving until heated through.
Making tamales to celebrate events big and small is a way of preserving Latin American and Mexican heritage, which has now become a Texan and overall American tradition, too. Though dressed up in the red and green trappings of Christmas, these tamales are for everyone. Full of warmth, love, and the gift of good taste, it doesn’t even matter that they happen to be vegan and gluten-free, too.
When you unwrap a tamale during your own holiday celebrations, whatever they may be, the experience is universal. Pass the tamales; share the joy.