New York City, where I grew up and where I still spend lots of my time, is a great food city. What it is not is a great street food city. Yes, we have hot dogs, halal, and coffee carts for breakfast on the run, but compared to street food meccas like Bangkok, Mexico City, or Istanbul—well, again, we're not great.
There are some exceptions, of course, and none better than the people (often women) who sell tamales from small carts, often alongside things like pozole and esquites (warm grilled corn salad served in a Styrofoam cup). The tamales are stored in big metal pots, coolers, or some vessel hidden inside a heavy black trash bag, and delivered hot. Honestly, eating a steaming tamale on the corner or while walking to wherever you’re going next—it’s kind of magical.
A tamale cart in Brooklyn
Tamales are a little mysterious; they only fully reveal themselves after we untie them, unwrap them, and cut them open to see what’s inside. And it’s not immediately obvious how they’re made, which I think is why so few of us ever attempt to make them. But we should, because making tamales from scratch is one of the more rewarding home cooking projects I know.
They’re more a test of patience than technique. You have to soak the corn husk wrappers overnight (effortless, but requires some planning), and then spend some quality arts and crafts time spreading the masa mixture and filling onto the husks, folding, rolling and tying. If you’re all in, you can cut little ribbons of corn husk and use those to tie up the tamales; otherwise, just use string. The actual cooking is the easiest part, as long as you have a steamer rack/basket, or some makeshift rig for steaming. Just pile in the tamales, cover, and let the steam do its thing until they’re firm, about 45 minutes.
Some logistics: At this point, you can find masa harina (masa flour) at most supermarkets. Dried corn husks are less ubiquitous, but are easily obtainable at Mexican markets, online, probably even places like Whole Foods. The recipe below is filled with chile-braised meat and the masa batter is laced with lard and chicken stock, so…not vegetarian. But it easily can be. Use a neutral oil instead of the lard, and vegetable stock or water instead of the chicken stock. As for the filling, I like any combination of roasted poblanos, corn kernels, and black beans (with some of their cooking liquid to keep things saucy), with or without a nice melty cheese like queso Oaxaca. But, of course, feel free to experiment.
This project is completely manageable on your own, but even better with a friend (bring some beers), a kid (maybe ditch the beers), or some other curious helper. Freeze what you don’t eat right away (leave them in the husks), and reheat them in the microwave or steamer. Homemade tamales in your freezer whenever you want them? Yep, magical.
Making tamales doesn’t have to be difficult—it just takes a little planning. Start by soaking the husks overnight. The next day, mix the masa harina with some chicken stock, lard, salt and baking powder. Lay the mixture onto the husks along with shredded meat, wrap and steam them in a rack. It's really a fun cooking project, especially if you rope in some friends.
This recipe for a kind of shredded chile-sauced meat — beef, pork, chicken or lamb — is a perfect filling for tamales or tacos.
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