Home Living in Mexico It’s Not Over Til the Tamales Sing!

It’s Not Over Til the Tamales Sing!

by Deborah Van Hoewyk

By Deborah Van Hoewyk for The Eye Magazine

If you’ve spent more than one winter in Huatulco, you know all about the roscas de reyes, the usually ring-shaped “king cakes,” covered with candied fruit and thick icing strips, that replace all the whole-grain baguettes and ciabattas you went to get from the Chedraui bakery. The rosca is to celebrate the January 6 arrival of the three Magi, or kings, at the birthplace of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, bearing, of course, the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And that, you think, is that for the season of Navidad. Back to the baguettes.

Oh, no, not so. Within the rosca is a tiny figurine of baby Jesus – big roscas have several. Should you get a baby Jesus in your piece of the cake, you are obligated to Navidad right through Día de Candelaria, or Candlemas Day, on February 2. Jesus was born Jewish, and the rituals of birth required that when he was 40 days old, he and Mary would go to the temple, where Jesus would be presented, and Mary would be purified – February 2 is the 40th day after December 25. And in the Aztec calendar, some say February 2 is New Year’s Day (more likely February 12 or 13), so the Christian Candlemas was easily combined with the Aztec celebration.

And what is your obligation on Día de Candelaria? You host a party, and you serve tamales! The tamales are usually accompanied by atole (a corn/masa-based hot drink) and/or champurrado (the chocolate version of atole). The menu is an Aztec/Spanish “mashup”; the Nahuatl word tamalli means “wrapped food” – and what are tamales, if not “wrapped food”! Oh, by the way, the thing itself is a “tamal” – no ‘e’ on the end, that’s part of the plural ending. Of course, as they say on the Sabritas potato chip truck, ¿A que no puedes comer solo uno?

And tamallis were exactly what the Aztecs offered the gods Tláloc, Chalchiuhtlicue, and Quetzalcóatl at their February New Year’s Day celebration. According to Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, author of the Florentine Codex (a hand-written 1577 manuscript describing life in New Spain), the Aztecs “made some tamales called tzatzapaltamalli, made of pigtails (amaranth) or ashes … and they offered them in the same temple of the place in front of the goddess they called Coatlicue or Coatlantonan.” (Who knows how the names of the gods were really spelled? And whether, bless them, they were happy eating ashes?)

At the time Christ was born, the Aztecs might have offered tamales with just the corn dough filling, or they might have used turkey or turkey eggs, flamingo, rabbits or gophers, squash, beans, fruits, honey. They even used fish and that little aquatic salamander, the axolotl. (Greatly endangered, the axolotl is soon scheduled to appear on a new $50 peso note; it is hoped the cutie-pie portrait will encourage conservation – for other updates on Mexican currency, see article elsewhere in this issue.)

Do It Up Right in Tlacotalpan

While Día de Candelaria and fiestas with tamales are not celebrated everywhere in Mexico, one of the best places to go is Tlacotalpan (in Nahuatl, it means “the land between the rivers”), a colorful town (no paint has been spared) on the banks of the Papaloapan River in the state of Veracruz.

From time immemorial, the inhabitants held a festival for Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of the seas and of beauty, who wears a skirt of jade. Nowadays, Tlacotalpan celebrates Día de Candelaria with a ten-day festival dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria. This version of the Virgin is the patron saint of the Canary Islands, but she came to Latin America with the conquistadores, reportedly on a religious medal around the neck of Hernán Cortés.

The festival in Tlacotalpan has parades with mojigangas, puppets with paper mâché heads – giants for the adult parade, minis for the infantil parade; bull-running; a cabalgata (a parade on horseback, brilliant costumes, floats, etc.); jaraneros, or musicians who play the jarana type of son jarocho (sound of Veracruz), perform; everywhere, people are dancing the fandango; and the Virgin arrives upriver in a boat parade and is carried through the streets to the square.

And the Tamales?

Mexican tamales pretty much all start with masa, a corn dough, but every region seems to have a unique version of the “wrapped food.” Even the wrappings vary, from corn husks to plantain leaves, and if you’re an ace, strips of maguey cactus or empty avocado shells. One culinary website estimated that you can find 500 – or so – types of tamales in Mexico.

Here in Oaxaca, tamales are usually wrapped in plantain leaves, and can include a variety of fillings – chicken, mole sauce, and chepil (a local green, very common in next-door Chiapas) are just a few of the possibilities sold on the beach in Santa Cruz Huatulco.

If you go to the Yucatán, they might call your tamales “vaporcitos,” meaning the pork and/or chicken-filled tamales are steamed. Actually, most tamales are steamed, they just aren’t called “vaporcitos” and cooked in a hole in the ground called a pib, as they are in the Yucatán. The filling is spiced with recado, usually a red spice mixture that can contain annatto, oregano, cumin, garlic, salt, ground dried peppers, and allspice, cloves and/or cinnamon.

In Campeche, also in the Yucatân, you can get tamales chaya, filled with ground pork, tomato, olives, toasted pumpkin seeds and lots of chopped chaya, a local green. Once you unwrap your tamal chaya, you can top it with tomato sauce and fresh cheese.

In Puebla and Morelos, you can get tamales de frijol, filled with pureed beans and cheese.

With about 495 types of tamales to go, the list is endless. You can get tamales by color, that is the color of the sauce added to the masa – verde or roja. You can have tamales with mole – that distinctive sauce, claimed by both Oaxaca and Puebla that comes in seven (más or menos) varieties. There are tamales de rajas, strips of peppers, from mild to off the Scoville scale, covered in melted cheese.

Finally, you can have tamales for dessert. These are the pink, or sweet, tamales. The masa filling is complemented with chocolate, berries, pineapple, sweet spices, or other fruits, and tinted with red food coloring. Back when tamales were made for the gods, however, the pink tamales were tinted with cochineal, those little red, scaly insects found on cactus paddles and used to make textile dye. Are they safe to eat? You betcha – ¡buen provecho!


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