Chances are, if you have ever been to a Mexican restaurant, you have seen, maybe even eaten a tamale. Tamales most closely resemble enchiladas or small burritos, visually, but they have a unique taste all their own. Some people are intimidated by the idea of trying to make them at home, but learning the steps and the tradition behind these holiday favorites make it a recipe worth trying, no matter what season.

Though often in restaurants you find them made with pork or beef, the tamales that the chef and I made were filled with chicken, a recipe he grew up making in his native Oaxaca.

Also, tamales are often made in corn husks, though the traditionally southern tamales are wrapped in banana leaves. We used both. No matter which version you choose to make, just know that you are keeping a traditional alive. Many Latino families gather around the holidays and make tamales together for everyone who comes home to celebrate. Sometimes the women and children of the family will spend all day making tamales to enjoy together on Christmas eve and Christmas day.  They may make as few as 30, or even as many as a hundred, but there will always be one special one in each batch. The very last tamale that the person makes is the biggest, and is marked with a string, or piece of the husk tied around it to signify that it is the special one, made by, and belonging to the chef, or in my case, the mama in charge.

Oaxacan tamales in banana leaves.
  • 2 banana leaves clean (or about 30 husks of corn, if there are no banana leaves)
  • 1 medium whole chicken
  • 1 medium onion or 6 small pearl onions.
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tablespoons  of Crisco shortening or vegetable oil.
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 10 guajillo chile
  • 4 Ancho chile
  • 4 rates of Maseca (cornmeal)
  • 3 tablespoons of salt

Step 1

Wash the chicken and take off the skin. Cut into small parts and put it to boil in a medium saucepan. Add salt to taste and two cloves of garlic. Remove the seeds to the chilies and put them to soak (15 to 20 min). Roast 2 onion, tomatoes and 2 cloves of garlic.

When they are roasted, put the chilies, tomatoes, onions and garlic and a tablespoon of salt in a blender.  Eye! The water where you soaked the chile is drained and you can use clean water so that it can blend well, (about half cup).

Or, if you like, you can use the same chicken broth that is cooking, it is even better! Blend the ingredients until you get a thick liquid.

Step 2

Shred the chicken from the bone. Put the shredded chicken in a bowl, and strain with a strainer the liquid sauce from the blender.

Step 3

Wash the leaves of banana and cut into small squares, about 15cm x 15cm, more or less.  Peel off the backing of the midrib of the leaf starting from the apex to the base.

Boil the parts already cut about 5 min or put in a flat iron or griddle to soften the tissues and to be able to handle it better.

If using corn husks, you can put the leaves of corn in a container with hot water so that they become soft and manageable.

Step 4

Put 4 cups of cornmeal in a bowl, add 2 tablespoon of salt, more or less to taste. Add 1 tablespoon of baking powder or baking soda. Add 3 Tablespoon of Crisco or oil. Pour in about two cups of the same chicken stock leftovers, mix until the dough is manageable.

Step 5

Lay out the leaves and add a small piece of dough on top and flatten as if making a pizza or tortilla.

Add 1 or 2 tablespoon of the chicken mixture and fold the leaf along with the cornmeal giving it a shape like a quesadilla and fold in the edges making a rectangle with sealed edges. Place water in a stock pot with a steamer basket and bring to boil.

Carefully lay the tamales in the steamer basket in a layered woven pattern. Steam tamales in basket over water for about 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Many thanks to Chef Yavel of Las Trancas for sharing this recipe!