¡Tamales Para Todos!
Our guide to Baltimore's bundles of savory Latin bliss
Of the innumerable little pockets of joy that can randomly pop into existence on any particular day, a truly special one was visited upon me this past fall. I arrived home to find a delivery menu stuck on my door, which on its own may not be such a big deal, but even from a distance I could tell it was new, unfamiliar.
Jackpot! A brand new delivery place, and not only that, the first-ever delivery Mexican! And Honduran food, too. Here in East Baltimore (already the convenience capital thanks to the availability of delivery beer and cigs) you can order cemitas, tacos, pupusas, and most importantly, tamales.
It's only in the past decade that Baltimoreans have enjoyed a veritable wealth of quality Latin cuisine options, and only in the past few years that such a variety of nonstandard Tex-Mex dishes has appeared on Baltimore-area menus. Now, finally, tamales are prevalent enough to warrant delivery status (albeit with just one option currently--Pizza and Taqueria-Tex-Mex on Eastern Avenue; see below). This was really a special moment for me; after all one way to measure a city's awesomeness is by the variety of foods that can be had without even walking one's lazy ass out of the house. Baby steps, Baltimore, baby steps.
The last time I'd had a decent tamal was years ago, when my girlfriend at the time made one of her food-mule runs from her native Detroit. It was her usual haul of pierogies and gulasz from Polish Village in Hamtramck, and green and red tamales from some unnamed place in Mexicantown, all paragons of their ilk. And while I have yet to encounter anything even approaching the food from Polish Village here in Baltimore, the local tamal scene has caught up, and I daresay surpasses that of Detroit. This in my estimation is due to the prevalence of southern-style (i.e. from Southern and Gulf Coast Mexico and Central America) tamales.
Considering their brief history here, I guess it's not so surprising that a lot of people don't know exactly what tamales are. A tamal (the singular form of tamales) is essentially masa (ground corn treated with lime) mixed with fat, usually surrounding some sort of filling, that's been wrapped in leaves and then cooked. The field corn used for masa requires chemical treatment (lime or other alkaline) to remove the tough indigestible hulls from the kernels, which are then ground into flour. Tamales are an indigenous American food, consumed by ancient Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs.
Perhaps the most familiar style of tamales in the United States are the type popular in the South and Southwest, usually masa mixed with lard or shortening wrapped in dried corn husks, filled with beef, pork, or chicken and salsa verde (green tomatillo-based), salsa roja (red dried chili pepper-based), or mole (dried chili pepper and chocolate-based) sauce. Often the choices are streamlined to just green or red. Tamales calientes, or "hot tamales," were a type popular in the Mississippi Delta, where Mexican and African-American laborers picked cotton in the same fields. Bluesman Robert Johnson famously used them as a metaphor for vaginas in his song "They're Red Hot," and you can still buy nasty Hot Tamales candies, which impart heat with cinnamon flavor. (Cinnamon is used in many tamal recipes, so there is a valid if tenuous connection there.)
The southern style differs in that the tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks, a technique arising in post-Columbian times, as bananas are native to Southeast Asia. Banana leaves are much larger and sturdier than corn husks, and thus allow for more size variation and differences in cooking technique and consistency. At local eateries, banana-leaf tamales are often roughly the same size as corn-husk tamales, about the size of a TV remote control. This is probably to price them competitively (usually around $2) because homemade ones are typically larger. In any case, in Baltimore it is usually Honduran or Salvadoran restaurants that serve these banana-leaf tamales, which tend to be more tender and moister than their Mexican counterparts, which too often have masa that is grainy, dense, and dry.
My theory is that because the banana leaves form a tighter, more durable package, the masa can be made "looser" with the addition of more fat or liquid without fear of leakage or loss of structural integrity. Another difference is that the meat (usually pork or chicken in Baltimore) in corn-husk tamales is cooked beforehand, then used to fill the tamales, which are then steamed relatively briefly to set the masa. The banana leaves used in southern-style tamales enable longer cooking times, and the meat (usually dark meat chicken) is cooked directly inside the masa, enhancing the savoriness of an already extra-fatty product. In fact, these tamales almost never have any sauce cooked into them, although this, too, may be a cost-cutting measure.
I was introduced to this type of tamal by my friend Fred, who is originally from Guatemala and has worked in my restaurant for several years. Three years ago, his mother was visiting over Christmas, and asked if she could use the restaurant facilities to make tamales, since, like many labor-intensive foods, they are a holiday tradition when you have family and friends around who are willing to be pressed into forced labor. In exchange for my help, I got her recipe, and I still feel guilty for getting the far better end of that deal.
I'd made tamales just a few times before, having mostly shied away from them due to the enormous time and effort investment: The process--mix the masa, cook the sauce, prepare the meat, assemble the tamales, and steam--is pretty much an all-day affair. But there were a few major differences this time. The use of banana leaves, of course, was the big one, but also I noticed that Fred's mom cooked her masa far longer than usual. I now believe this is part of what makes the Central American tamales so moist--the long cooking time ensures full absorption of liquid by the corn meal before tamal assembly, thus enabling the cook to accurately adjust the final texture of the masa. In Mexican-style tamales, the masa is cooked briefly if at all, and I think the resulting dryness and stiffness is caused by under-saturated corn meal soaking up all the moisture. And finally, the use of raw meat (in this case pork) being cooked directly within the tamales, which are steamed for three or four hours, or long enough for the pork to become tender.
Suffice it to say these things changed my world view entirely. The glistening green, squat bundles were more of a packaged dinner than a portable snack, with vegetal, smoky pepper, and warm cinnamon aromas wafting up when you opened one. Inside was tender on-the-bone pork, sweet peppers, sliced olives, and the amazing masa--completely different than anything I'd had before, barely cohesive, trembly, almost gelatin-like in texture, acquiescent to the merest pressure, but still holding shape around the filling. That day and the subsequent week, I had so many I felt like I was sweating lard, aka "the tamal sweats," and while I was grateful to Mrs. Peñate (Fred's mom) for opening my eyes, I also felt despair at the thought of having to do so much damn work if I ever wanted to have such good tamales again.
My hopes were briefly sparked in 2007 when I moved to Butcher's Hill and noticed a few places selling tamales, but in general they were disappointing, not even matching those from Detroit. The recent tamal explosion, however, led to my first encounter with a retail banana-leaf tamale. A friend recommended I try pupusas at Rosa's Grill at Lexington Market, but tamales were on the menu and I noticed they were wrapped in foil, a tell-tale sign of the Central American style. Though they were a bit minimalist compared to the homemade ones I'd had, lacking any sauce and using chicken instead of pork (probably to shorten cooking time), the masa was righteous, and they were far and away the best retail tamales I'd had in Baltimore up till then. Thus began my mission to organize a guide to this city's current state of tamal affairs. I employed the assistance of several friends, many of them tamal virgins, to compile scores and comments, all of us enduring intense bouts of tamal sweats in the process. No need to thank us, it was our pleasure.
Since both banana-leaf and corn-husk tamales were tasted, a direct comparison was impossible. Flavor and texture scores reflect the average based on the subjective ratings (1-5) of 10 tasters. Most retail banana-leaf tamales are filled with chicken, so chicken (and thus verde or green) corn-husk tamales were tasted when possible. Most places also offer roja, or red tamales filled with pork; exceptions are noted. All tamales cost around $2.00 each, with the exception of Mari Luna's, which are three for $8. All "comments" are those of tasters, and "notes" are by the author.
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