I’ve always wanted to know what tamales were. It’s one of those dishes you hear about now and then but rarely get the chance to try – at least if you live in Europe as I do. So of all the countries where tamales are eaten, I jumped for the first one that came along in this alphabetical cooking project. This happened to be Belize, which has its own delicious take on this classic Central American dish. These little packages of maize meal and assorted fillings sure are time-consuming. But how lovely once you sit down, breathe a sigh of relief after your labours, and sink your teath into a freshly steamed, piping hot tamal.
Belize is a tiny little country of less than 350 000 people that lies on Central America’s Yukatan peninsula. As you’d expect of a country tucked between Mexico, Gautamala and the Caribbean sea, its cuisine is rooted in Mayan influences but comes with a big splash of Caribbean flavour. So johnny-cakes and rice and beans (or beans and rice, a different dish altogether!) are eaten side by side with tacos and empanadas.
Belizean tamales are another good example of this – as in Mexico, the country most associated with the dish, maize meal is combined with a large variety of fillings such as stewed pork, chicken or beans, and then steamed or baked in a leaf of some kind. Unlike Mexicans, who famously wrap their tamales in corn husks, however, Belizeans mostly use banana or plantain leaves. Belizean stews are also famously heavy on the recado roja – an aromatic and distinctively red spice paste.
Tamales are notoriously time-consuming to make, but are a must-eat at Belizean festive occasions such as weddings, where entire teams of women and children sit preparing them. Here’s an entertaining account of how important many little helper hands can be, especially if you’re making tamalitos, or mini-tamales. Chicken seems to be the most common filling for Belizean tamales, and here people serve it with a quirk: each tamale usually contains a chicken bone ‘for flavour’! I personally quailed at the thought of adding to my already daunting task by working a full chicken into the mix (I alas, had no army of little’uns), so I must admit to having used boneless chicken breasts instead.
The dish presented other challenges as well, particularly as far as shopping for ingredients was concerned. Challenge Number One was to find masa de mais. You see, Central Americans don’t just eat plain maize meal the way we do in South Africa. Instead, they treat it with slaked lime in a process, pioneered by the Aztecs and Mayans, called nixtamalisation. I’d never heard of this process before, but once I’d finally tracked down masa in what must be Brussels’ only Mexican grocery store, I realised I’d eaten masa many times before. As soon as I opened the pack, the smell of tacos wafted up to greet me. Nixtamalised maize smells and tastes a-maize-ing (I know, I know, I’m a bad person). I wonder why it’s not used in other places that rely on this grain as a staple?
Finding banana leaves was actually easier than I thought: trusty Matonge, home to Brussels’ African community, came through for me once again. The only mission I failed at was in my quest for the ingredient that gives recado rojo its rojo – anatto seeds. This is the second time I’ve come up short in my quest to find them, so I’m unfortunately forced to conclude that they can’t be found in this city. They add a bright red colour to food, and you should have better luck if you live in the States. Those of us in Europe will have to make do with paprika until we get proper Mexican food one day!
What Did I Need?
For the recado rojo, I adapted this recipe slightly (makes about 4 tablespoons):
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of anatto (achiote) seeds (use paprika if you really need a substitute, or just leave this ingredient out)
- 2 teaspoons of dried oregano (Mexican oregano is the best)
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 3 whole cloves
- 1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or orange juice
- 1 whole chili pepper, chopped
For the chicken stew:
- 3 – 4 small chicken fillets
- one large onion, chopped
- about 4 tablespoons of recado rojo (see above)
- 1-2 red or yellow bell peppers (optional)
- 1/2 cup water
For the tamales:
- 2 cups of masa flour (you could probably use ordinary maize flour but the taste would be quite different)
- 1/2 cup of lard (or butter, but lard is healthier!)
- 2 cups of warm chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- a bowl of chicken stew or other tamal filling.
- half as many banana leaves as you want tamales (eg 10 banana leaves for 20 tamales)
How Did I Do It?
For the recado rojo:
1. Grind the dry ingredients in a spice mill or mortar and pestle until a fine powder
2. Add the wet ingredients and blend until smooth.
For the chicken stew:
1. Marinate the chicken in the recado rojo for a few hours (one hour minimum).
2. Fry the onion in a little oil on medium heat until translucent (about 3-4 minutes).
3. Add the chicken to the pot and fry until aromatic and browned.
4. Add the bell pepper (if using) and fry until slightly softened.
5. Add the water and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the water is evaporated and a thick stew remains.
For the tamales:
1. Make the masa: Rehydrate the masa flour by combining it with the chicken stock. Whip the lard with an electric mixer, egg whisk or your hand to incorporate as much air into it as possible. It should end up with a light texture, like whipped butter. Slowly add the masa to the lard, blending all the while in order to keep incorporating air into the mixture. This is apparently the secret to light, toothsome tamales. Add the salt. You should now have masa that, according to this useful video, floats when dropped in a bit of water. I couldn’t quite manage to get mine as light, but maybe next time!
2. Assemble the tamales: There are many ways to roll a tamal, but, borrowing from the video linked to above, this one seemed to work best for me. Cut banana leaves in half down the spine, and place one half on a flat surface. Trim the sides so that you have a shape resembling a square. Place a thin layer of masa on the bottom middle of the leaf, leaving the top and sides free (see photo below). Add a smaller portion of chicken stew in the middle of the masa. Now roll the tamal sideways into a tube shape, before folding over the empty bottom portion. You’ll have a little package that is closed on three sides and open on the top.
3. Steam the tamales: There are, again, several ways to do it. If you have a large steamer basket, this will work best. I also found a colander to work very well – place the tamales inside, upright, and place over a large saucepan filled with several centimetres of water (fill it up as high as possible without putting the tamales in direct contact with the water). Cover the entire contraction well with foil to avoid steam from escaping. Steam for an hour, checking 45 minutes in to make sure there is still water in the saucepan. Remove from heat, let sit for 15 minutes and unwrap.
4. Enjoy! You can serve tamales with rice and peas or, as I did, with fried plantains. You can also freeze cooked tamales – all they need is a 20 min stint in the steamer to be ready for eating once again.
So How Did It Taste?
Great! Each little tamal came out very prettily, the cooked masa slipping effortlessly from the banana leaf and encasing the filling neatly. I can see how tamales make for good, portable snacks. They also make good leftovers.
I just LOVE the taste of masa – it’s so fragrant and just feels incredibly nourishing. The banana leaf gives it a distinctive, slightly bitter flavour. I can imagine that some might prefer the corn husk wrapping, which keeps the masa tasting sweeter. I’d love to compare the two, and so, for my sins, I am actually already planning the tamales I’ll make one day for Mexico or Guatemala.
The filling was also really tasty. In retrospect, I would have used less masa and more filling for each tamale. The recado rojo smells and tastes divine – a little like pasta, thanks to all that oregano, but more exciting. At first, I was a little suspicious of everything that I had to throw into it, but it made for a truly unique blend of spices that I’ll definitely cook with again.
Joe loves Mexican food, and so he was happy too. Like me, he particularly loved the masa, which, according to him:
…tastes just like tacos.
Roll on more Central America so we can try this ingredient in all its forms and flavours!