Tamales: The Perfect Portable Food
While I love to cook in my motorhome, sometimes I just run out of gas (so to speak) and want delicious comfort food without the hassle. The perfect solution: tamales. They’re inexpensive, freeze well and make a tasty meal in a snap.
For those unfamiliar with this Mesoamerican favorite, tamales is a traditional dish from Mexico and Central/South America made from masa, a starchy corn-based dough mixed with lard or vegetable shortening and steamed or boiled in a leaf or husk wrapper (discarded before eating).
Tamales have a long and colorful history. Scientists believe tamales originated in Mexico/Central America as early as 8000 to 5000 B.C. Ancient Maya people ate tamales, which they called utah, as early as 1200 to 250 B.C. Like modern RV travelers, Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca before them, used tamales as portable food when traveling or for soldiers during wartime. Inca natives ate tamales long before the Spanish visited the New World.
Tamales are filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and/or chilies (there’s also a fillingless tamale called tamales sordos, which is served with refried beans or coffee). Most often, tamales are filled with pork and chicken in red or green salsa or mole, complex chili-based sauces popular in Mexico. Another traditional variation is to add pink-colored sugar to the masa and fill the dough with raisins or other dried fruit for a sweet tamal de dulce.
In tropical parts of Mexico like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz and the Yucatán Peninsula, tamales are square and big, often 15 inches or larger. And instead of being steamed in a corn husk, they use a banana leaf or sometimes chard or avocado leaves.
Today, the popularity of tamales has spread beyond Mexico and South America and people have put their own spin on this treat. In states around the Mississippi Delta, African-Americans developed a spicy tamale made from cornmeal instead of masa, which is boiled (rather than steamed) in corn husks. In Louisiana, they like cornmeal tamales made with a combination of beef and pork mixed with cornmeal.
In Chicago, even Chicago-style hot dog stands sell their own version of tamales made from machine-extruded cornmeal wrapped in paper!
While you can make your own tamales and freeze them for your next road trip, they’re a lot of work. That’s why families often gather around the holidays and work together to make dozens and dozens of tamales.
There are a number of great places that sell tamales. These are some of my faves.
El Pinto, Albuquerque, New Mexico This sprawling, hacienda-style restaurant serves traditional Mexican dishes, including tamales, to as many as 4,000 people per day. Why so popular? They make everything from scratch, including roasting and hand-peeling their chilies.
Mitzil Loncheria, Oregon City, Oregon A small, family-owned restaurant serving authentic Mexican food, Mitzil gets honors for the lightest, fluffiest tamales I’ve ever eaten. Luz, the owner, sells pork, chicken and chile, and pineapple tamales by the piece or the dozen.
Rivera, Los Angeles, California If you want something a little different, try clam tamales in downtown Los Angeles’ Rivera restaurant. The restaurant makes clam tamales steamed in clamshells that “marries sea and earth.” Rivera’s masa is moist, fluffy and buttery and it received L.A. Weekly’s No. 1 rating in the “10 Best Tamales in Los Angeles.”
Casa de Tamales and Canby Asparagus Farm, Canby, Oregon Another winner in the Pacific Northwest is Casa de Tamales, part of a local asparagus farm. It sells its handmade tamales around the Northwest at farmers markets.
Got a favorite tamale haunt? Let Bobbie know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Road Foodie” in the subject line.