Family Food: Smell of freshly made tamales fills the air this time of year

By Jennifer Squires


Ask a woman where she got her tamale recipe and the answer is often a complex web involving her mother, grandmother, a neighbor or cousin.

And then, of course the inevitable, “Well, you can put anything in a tamale.”

Tamales, a stuffed dough wrapped in a leaf or corn husk then steamed, can be traced back to the Mayan people. While they can be eaten year-round, tamales are a traditional holiday food in the Latino culture, “most likely because so many family members are around,” says Shirley Castillo, looking up last week from the tamale-assembly table in her Watsonville kitchen.

Castillo, a well-known Watsonville community activist, has gathered friends — all women — to help her make the 20-dozen tamales she will serve during holiday parties throughout December. The table is strewn with bowls of masa, chili, black olives, pepperjack cheese, green chilis and jalapenos. A tray of softened corn husks, called “hojas,” sits in the middle.

“If you’re going to make something like this, it’s a lot of everything,” Castillo says.

She adheres to a method her mother, from New Mexico, taught her, though it’s influenced by family friends from Mexico who lived in Arizona.

“She improvised,” Castillo admits when pushed for her mother’s secret recipe.

Then she clarifies: “It’s not a recipe; it’s just portions.”

Her chili, a chunky beef and pork mix seasoned with roasted New Mexican dried chili pods, garlic, onion and tomato, is stored in a vat. The ratio is one pound of meat for one dozen tamales, and she purchased 30 pounds of masa — dough made from corn flour — for the tamale-making extravaganza. All of it will be used.

Most families make their tamales on Noche Buena — that’s Christmas Eve — when the relatives have gathered. Women and girls traditionally come together to prepare the food and chat, always aiming to finish before midnight Mass. The tamales steam for hours and are ready to eat on Christmas.

“One thing you must know about the making of tamales — this is an assembly line only made of women,” explains Rebecca Garcia, a retired Cabrillo College trustee and current candidate for Watsonville City Council.

Garcia is painting a thin layer of masa on half of each hoja using the back of a large spoon. The hojas then pass to Castillo, who lays down a spoonful of chili and plops a black olive in the center. Castillo folds the hoja three times: first, one side folds to the center to cover the chile, then the opposite side folds on top. The tamale now resembles an open-ended burrito. Castillo pinches the center to push the masa and filling toward the top, then makes her final fold by flipping the end of the hoja up.

Some people also like to squeeze the top closed, explains Celia Organista, who is making her veggie tamale recipe at the other end of the table.

One important note: Unless someone makes masa from scratch using flour or corn meal with vegetable broth, there is no such thing as a vegetarian tamale because store-bought masa contains lard.

Masa and hojas can be purchased at Mexican markets, like La Rosa at Fifth and Main streets in Watsonville.








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