A recent visit to the colorful city of San Antonio, Texas, included an expert lesson in tamale preparation followed by an afternoon visit to one of the town’s favorite annual gatherings: The Tamales! Holiday Festival held at the site of the former Pearl Brewery. This lively outdoor event brings together vendors of all stripes for the dining pleasure of all.
An art museum taught us the art of making tamales.
We started our day at the Witte Museum where our group took part in La Tamalada: The Art of Tamale Making where we learned some tamale history. These delicacies were served in Mexico in the 1550s and, these days, they’re seasonal holiday fare. Turns out everyone has their own way of making them — and their own favorite source.
For the uninitiated like me, a tamale is a made of various fillings steamed or boiled in a leaf or corn wrapper. The process starts with a corn dough or masa, which we mixed with lard using our hands. I generously seasoned mine with cumin, salt, chili powder and water from cooking dried chili pods, giving it a nice pungent depth. Next, we took cooked beans and seasoned them similarly, also adding the cooked pods, which had mellowed into themselves with a pungent but not overly spicy richness.
Once our fillings were set, our teacher came by with soaked corn husks in which we’d wrap our fillings. She expertly guided us in how to put everything together, which began with slathering the masa on the inside of the husk, leaving some room at each end. We added the beans and then rolled them into neat little packages we tied together with a corn husk strip.
Off they went for steaming and when they came back, we opened them (no, you don’t eat the wrapper – something I didn’t realize the first time I was faced with a tamale!) to find they’re turned into warming, spicy, comforting creations.
When working on my masa and beans, I kept adding more salt and spices to the point where I thought I’d overdone it, but once my tamales were steamed, they were flavorful and spiced just right, so over seasoning turned out to be a good idea. I ate a few and brought some home for later.
The Tamales! Holiday Festival showed us how the pros do it.
Next, our group hit the festival where more than 35 vendors–from regional home cooks and culinary students to local restaurants and accomplished chefs–were selling their individual takes on tamales. Some tamales were wrapped in banana leaves, others in corn. Some, like the ones we’d made earlier, were filled with beans, others were filled with chicken mole, pork or various blends of vegetables.
Lines were long at some booths and short at others, but to me, they were all delicious. Some tamales sold for a buck and others went as high as $4.00. There were also some soups and a few fried dough desserts to round out the experience. Live music, children’s activities and a huge variety of affordable food made it a great afternoon. — story and photos by Leslie Long, RFT Contributor