• Kristina de Guzman

Christmastime means time for tamales

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Sharing the dish that brings people together

Salvadoran and Mexican tamales from Paraiso Tropical's kitchen.
Photo: Rubén Contreras

Making & eating tamales has long been a holiday tradition for many Latin Americans, particularly amongst Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Colombians, to name a few. At Paraiso Tropical Latin Food Market, advance Christmas & New Years’ orders are made each year to allow kitchen staff time to prep and cook enough tamales as they are hot sellers.

Although the Christmas season will be much different this year, the Edmonton-based Latino grocery store still hopes to bring a taste of the tropics to beat both the winter and coronavirus blues for local Latinos and non-Latinos alike.

A variety of special in-store promotions are on for the month of December, including ready-made tamal pick-up orders for both Christmas & New Years, as well as discounts on ingredients to make tamales for those who prefer to make them at home.

So you might be wondering: what exactly is a tamal and where did it originate? Hints can be found within the dish’s name, which comes from “tamalli” in Nahuatl, meaning “wrapped”.

“As far as I understand, the tamal is like a Mesoamerican dish […] so you can make the argument that they originate from any [Latin American] country with a strong Indigenous history of working with corn and the corn husks and the banana leaves, and just preparing dishes that way,” says Paraiso Tropical owner Jesus Gonzalez Rivas Jr. “The basics of a tamal is the corn dough and then whatever you want to stuff it with is just to your liking.”

Gela Cabrera Loa of Gelopolis, who helps Paraiso Tropical with graphic design and social media, is from Mexico and adds that the tamal is an example of food fusion.

“Because in Mexico, we didn’t have chicken [before]. We didn’t have pork. And the Spanish brought those. So before, [Indigenous peoples] didn’t have those meats. They didn’t have pork lard. [Tamales] were [made] mostly with vegetables.”

Paraiso Tropical's Salvadoran tamal.
Photo Rubén Contreras

Known by different names

With European colonization and migration throughout the Americas, the tamal has also made its way to various regions.

“You see [tamales] in Guatemala. You see them in El Salvador, Ecuador, even Brazil – [Brazilians] go by a different name,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. shares. “Instead of calling it tamales, they call it pamonha (“pamunha” in Tupi).

January 20, 2015 San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala: tzutujil mayan women preparing traditional food together
Photo: Barna Tanko

“That’s the other thing: the name is not just ‘tamales,’” he raises. “Essentially when we’re talking about wrapped corn dough, they come with many different names. And [just calling them] ‘tamales’ would be doing a disservice because they have several names, such as tamales, pamonha, hallacas…[which] is what they call them in Venezuela and some regions of Colombia. Also in Ecuador, they use that term.”

Another popular name for tamales is humitas (“jumint’a” in Quechua), which is commonly seen in Andean countries such as Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, says Gonzalez Rivas Jr.

A Paraiso kitchen staple

When Paraiso North’s kitchen opened in 2000, one of the first menu items was Salvadoran tamales, which was a recipe from Gonzalez Rivas Jr.’s mother and one of Paraiso’s founders, Alba Gonzalez. As Paraiso’s cooks over time have come from different Latin American countries, tamal recipes from other regions were shared. Nowadays, Paraiso offers three different kinds – Salvadoran, Mexican, and Colombian – every day of the week, all year long.

Salsas at Paraiso Tropical Latin Food Market.
Photo: Rubén Contreras

The ingredients used to make Paraiso’s tamales are either imported from Latin America, such as corn husks and banana leaves, or they come from local Hutterite farmers, such as the meats in the fillings. Tamales can be flavoured up with a variety of spices and chiles (chilis).

“I think all of the dried chiles that you can find at Paraiso, you can make different kinds of tamales: they can be with salsa verde, mole, chipotle salsa, chile ancho, pasilla salsa or a mix,” suggests Cabrera Loa.

Meanwhile, for Salvadoran tamales, the spice mix commonly used is relajo, shares Gonzalez Rivas Jr.

“It’s a very popular mix, because it’s used for [tamales and pan con pavo a.k.a. Salvadoran turkey sandwich]. We make a broth out of [relajo] like a marinade, and that’s what we use to marinate the meats and also to flavour up the dough.

“There will be slight variations in relajo, but it generally consists of key ingredients. For example: annatto seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried chili peppers – which is commonly guajillo and ancho pepper,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. explains. “[Relajo] has bay leaf, coriander seeds, and cumin as well. Sometimes, it’ll have cacao seeds.”

For those who have been having trouble finding relajo mix or are now curious to try it, Paraiso Tropical sells them, custom-made with imported ingredients for the store.

Paraiso's three types of tamales

Salvadoran and Mexican tamales made in-house at Paraiso Tropical Latin Food Market.
Photo: Rubén Contreras

For the Christmas season, customers have the option of choosing three main kinds of tamales: Colombian (chicken and pork), Mexican (pork), and Salvadoran (chicken). Tamales are also gluten-free, since they are made out of corn, and although the ones offered by Paraiso year-round are not vegetarian, Christmas orders offer a vegetarian option as well.

“In El Salvador, for Christmastime, we’ll prepare tamales with chipilín – which is a special type of green vegetable and almost has the consistency of spinach – as opposed to adding meat,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. says, adding that chipilín can be found in Paraiso Tropical’s freezer section.

Within Latin America, the types of tamales that can be found vary greatly according to region, but generally, Paraiso’s Salvadoran tamales which are made for Christmas are wrapped with banana leaf or plantain leaf.

“Why [wrapping with banana or plantain leaf is] necessary is because the flavour of the banana leaf really gives the [corn] dough a unique flavour,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. explains. “But the fillings are endless. People will put refried beans. They’ll make them [with] pork. They’ll make them [with] vegetables.”

Contrary to the Salvadoran tamal, Paraiso's Mexican tamal is made with corn husk with the corn dough being prepared in a different way that makes it drier and a bit more crumbly in texture compared to the Salvadoran ones, which are very soft.

Preparing Mexican tamales with corn husk at Paraiso Tropical.
Photo: Rubén Contreras

“Because [the Mexican tamales that we make is] wrapped in corn husk, the flavour is completely different,” says Gonzalez Rivas Jr. “And the chili peppers that we season in the Mexican tamal [are different]. We use a lot of annatto seeds and guajillo peppers and ancho peppers.

The way that broth is made is completely different. The flavours are very distinct in that sense.”

There are soft Mexican tamales that can be found elsewhere, however, and Cabrera Loa dishes out some secrets on how to make them. In some cases, people cook the flours twice.

“They can cook the flour in the big olla (pot) and when the flour is already cooked and thick – like it’s still liquid, but it’s cooked – then you just set up [the tamal] and wrap it – and then you cook it again.

“Those get super soft and moist. My mom likes to make some [where] she doesn’t cook the flour [again] but she makes it more liquid, so they get softer,” Cabrera Loa shares. “She calls them tamales de cuchara (spoon tamales), because they’re a bit less solid.”