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Food & Entertaining

Season of the Tamale

Author: John Roark
Issue: December, 2016, Page 144
Photo by Grace Stufkosky
The Mexican staple has evolved into a time-honored holiday tradition

Viva the tamale, that delectable creation borne of humble ingredients. With roots dating as far back as 5000 B.C. to the Aztec and Maya civilizations, the tamale remains part of Mexican family life the world over. And because the Christmas season is a time for family gatherings and festive meals, it is the peak of tamale season.

The dish’s ingredients are not complicated: masa (or dough), red or green chili, and shredded chicken or pork wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. But making tamales is by no means a simple or quick task. Families often dedicate an entire day to the process, hosting a “tamalada,” or tamale-making party, and assembling hundreds of the little bundles in a single afternoon.

“My earliest memories are of tamales being made,” says Anthony Serrano of El Palacio Restaurant & Cantina in Chandler, a second-generation chef. “Growing up, when the whole family was together around Christmas, we’d make dozens and dozens of tamales.”

Serrano lovingly remembers a family project in which every member has a role. “It’s almost like an assembly line because tamales are so labor-intensive,” he says. “Everyone gets in their spot: Somebody’s making the masa, someone else does the filling and all guests join in the process. It’s a great time to talk, laugh and be together.”

But a tamalada is as much about cooking together as it is about eating together. Each family’s recipe is often handed down for generations and has subtle variations, such as special spice blends or fillings. Serrano describes the perfect tamale as having just a hint of spiciness, a smooth texture and a balanced flavor profile. “After they’ve been cooked, my dad likes to grill them,” he says. “The smoke from the corn husk adds a whole different element.”

Here in the Valley, tamales have almost a cultlike following, especially during the holiday season. It seems as though everyone knows someone whose recipe is “the best.” Whether you’re sampling at local restaurants or buying based on word-of-mouth, don’t be afraid to explore. “You definitely want to try different tamales,” says Serrano. “They’re made with love, by people have put their hearts and souls into creating them.”
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