Generous Knowledge and the Tamale Process

Tamale Making and Masa

Generous Knowledge and the Tamale Process

Generously shared knowledge from my mom-in-law

Ivan and I have been together since 2006. During those years his mother magically produced little packets of corn-husk wrapped masa filled with beef, chicken, cheese or pineapple chunks. I didn't really know what went into the whole process but I growing up I was told it was a labor-intensive, it was "hard." I never met a cooking challenge I didn't want to master. Too much Anthony Bourdain maybe. If I was a still a teenage girl I would probably have posters of Food Network stars all over my room. Anyway, for the last several years I've wanted my mom-in-law to allow me to help her with the tamales since I never learned and it wasn't part of my family's tradition ever. 2017 turned out to be my lucky year! Ofelia generously shared her tamale-making magic and knowledge with us and I couldn't help but photo-document it.

The process starts with purchasing the masa - 40 pounds of it to start. We bought her 10 more when we stopped by to visit. Where to buy the tamale dough known as masa? In all honesty if my mom-in-law didn't tell me which stores on First Street sold it, I would have already been lost.

Once you transport your ridiculous poundage of masa home and clear your fridge of all food to make room, you need to prep and cook your fillings. I actually only participated in the assembly of the tamales. The morning of the tamale assemblage, one must first cook the fillings - be it beef in red chile sauce, chicken with veggies or cheese with peppers.

Ofelia (my mom-in-law) always makes the red chile beef the star of the show. And with good reason. They are exceptional. She taught me how to "embarrar" (or spread) the masa on a corn husk with a spoon by spreading about 2 spoonfuls in all directions, thinning it out as evenly as humanly possible without spending too much time on each (which I did and at my pace, we might have them done by a week after New Year's). Next, add about a spoonful of filling. And this unexpectedly is the hard part, fold the corn husk over securely without busting any seams loose and leaking the filling out of the dense masa (which I managed to ruin several by doing exactly that). Like a helpless toddler I just looked at her with the red sauce all over my hands and she graciously let me make several more until I got it right. She also taught me how to make them "delgadita" (delicate) and not just a big hulking clump of masa in a corn husk so that a small woman would only have room for only one. I definitely appreciate the tip because I want to eat more than one at every sitting with a fried egg and sour cream. 

She began telling me how back in the day it wasn't common to be able to buy masa ready-made. In fact backintheday, you had to mill and mix your own masa which involved hours of hard hand labor. Now there are machines to mix it to an even consistency. Also back in the day one had to save their own corn husks for this particular meal! Now you can buy the dried corn husks in a package (she gave me a package and I swear I just like looking at it because it reminds me of the magic that is cooking and food and learning traditions that I can one day teach to someone). 

I am so appreciative that my mom-in-law allowed us to go into her kitchen and ruin a few tamales for the sake of our own education. Cooking really is love. I felt so magical making these. It was something I was told was too hard to do, yet Ofelia manages to make over a hundred every year, most of which she gives away! I also really wanted to do this for my daughter. She's 7 right now and one day she will look back on this and remember spending time with her grandma and the tamales will remind her of her grandma.

Learning how the tamale process works also gave me ideas. I had visions of masa becoming one with non-traditional, unexpected ingredients. I felt like blasphemy. I felt like Mary Shelley creating Frankenstein. I got overexcited (as is normal when it comes to food though) and asked my husband to get 2 pounds of masa for some experiments...So I did experiment and I'm in no way done. I will post that recipe I came up with once I experiment with proportions a little bit more. My mom-in-law has no idea the monster she has created...maybe she is the Mary Shelley here. 

My hoodest East LA husband and our daughter, Neve!

My hoodest East LA husband and our daughter, Neve!

My daughter and I amid the corn husks.

My daughter and I amid the corn husks.

Photogenic spread by my mom-in-law.

Photogenic spread by my mom-in-law.

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The tamale elves.

The tamale elves.

90% of East LA is super old school. It's the little things like the clear door strips to keep flies out.

90% of East LA is super old school. It's the little things like the clear door strips to keep flies out.

Buying masa and Mexican hot chocolate disks at the tienda.

Buying masa and Mexican hot chocolate disks at the tienda.

Just waiting on our bread at the panaderia next door to the masa place.

Just waiting on our bread at the panaderia next door to the masa place.