One of the things I dearly miss about our winter sojourns to Mexico is the tamale vendor, who would, daily, slowly roll down the street in his pickup, selling chicken and shrimp tamales from two huge plastic containers in the open bed of his truck – his imminent arrival was always broadcast by his recorded and outrageously amplified voice repeating without-end what I can only guess was an announcement of whatever he was selling that day. Mexico is a land of noise! And apparently, that’s just the way Mexicans like it.
Our ventures SOB would take us to the west coast of Nayarit state, namely to a tiny fishing village of Chacala, which is rapidly, as we speak, turning into Mexico’s newest vacation paradise creation – Sad.
But Nayarit, because of its extensive coastal estuaries (what the ignorant often call, swamps!), has become Mexico’s primary shrimp producer – the estuaries are turned into huge shrimp farms, and making Mexico a world leader in the production of farmed shrimp. So, it is not difficult to find inexpensive shrimp anywhere in Nayarit, as little as $2 a pound for medium shrimp (with heads on, which to me is a plus). And so, shrimp tamales, which one will find almost nowhere else in Mexico, are commonplace here. And deliciously so.
I had often seen, in the little village groceries, large baskets of dried shrimp, but I never really knew what they were used for. But last trip down, I decided to bring back some, and upon arriving home, to do some research to discover just how they were to be used. What I discovered was that the dried shrimp are primarily used to make shrimp stock, which is then used in soups and such, and to all flavor to things like shrimp tamalies – over time, I’ve combined several recipes into my own adaption that we think is better than even the most delicious shrimp tamales we’ve had in Chacala.
But before I give you the recipe, I think I need to have a tamale discussion with you – then, if you still want to make them, have at it. First off, a fact that we here in the U.S. seem unaware of – in Mexico, tamales means more than one; tamal refers to a single one – OK, just so you know. Second, these look like easy things to make – they are not! Tamales are challenging to make well (see the Notes following the recipe below) – Yes, there are many ways to slap-dash them together, but each shortcut will take a bit more deliciousness away until they are not worth making or eating. My suggestion is to make them correctly first, then if you want to experiment on shortcuts, go ahead and try.
Tamales have become a ceremonial food in Mexico -and all of Central America- even though they represent one of the most traditional of foods. They far out-date the history of tortillas, and if they were easier to make, I think they’d probably replace the taco as the staple it is. But given their nature, they appear most often at Christmas time, during All Saints celebrations, and on Sundays in many restaurants, where their popularity outweighs their challenging nature to make – they are a labor of love. You will, almost never, find them offered in U.S. Mexican restaurants, and when you do, they likely won’t be worth eating.
Think you’re up to it? Here’s my version.
- 1 oz dried shrimp (if you can’t find these, use all chicken broth)
- 1 cup of very hot water
- 1/2 cup of strong chicken broth, warm
- 1/2 – 1 lb raw shrimp
- 2 cups dry masa
- 1/2 cup of lard, at room temp (Yes, shortening could sub here, but there is some loss of flavor)
- 2 tsp salt
- 1.5 tsp baking powder
- 1 small can of whole green mild chiles, cut into strips (optional)
- 1/4 lb of a firm white cheese, like Monterey Jack, cut into strips (optional)
- Enough corn husks to make 16-20 tamales – (or you could use baker’s parchment)
- Grind the dried shrimp in a blender jar to a powder.
- Pour very hot water over the dried shrimp powder, and let soak for about an hour.
- Strain the soaking shrimp mixture and discard the solids.
- Mix the chicken broth and the shrimp broth together and keep warm.
- Heat a large pot of water to a boil, remove from heat, and add the corn husks – allow to soak until soft and pliable, about 30 minutes to an hour.
- Using a stand mixer with the paddle, (this step is actually a bit easier with the whip beater, but you’ll have to switch to the paddle when you add the masa – so I use the paddle all the way) beat the lard until it’s light and airy, about 5 minutes – it will be necessary to stop the mixer and scrape down the sides several times while doing this.
- Now add the salt and baking powder to the dry masa – mix well.
- Add about a 1/4 cup of the masa mix, and a 1/4 cup of warm broth, alternately, with the mixer running at low speed – when all is mixed in, the dough should be pulling away from the sides of the bowl, but be very moist as well.
- Now take a piece of corn husk, or baker’s parchment, and depending on how large the piece is, place a tablespoon or two of the masa dough in the center.
- Depending on how large, or how small your shrimp are (you may use whole, half, or chopped shrimp), place some on top of the masa dough – if you using green chiles, add a strip here, and if you using cheese, add a strip of that as well.
- Take another tablespoon or two of dough, flatten in your hand, and place on top of the fillings – roll the sides of the husk over the fillings, and fold the ends of the tamal over (you may tie each one closed, or simply let their tight packing in the steamer hold them closed – your choice! – I don’t tie).
- Pack them into your steamer device – the ideal packing method is on end – but if your steamer is not high enough for that, you may lay them flat (I use the flat pack, and even go two high, but I’d advise against packing too tightly that the steam couldn’t get to all sections of the steamer.).
- Depending on your steamer device, the time will vary, anywhere from 1 hour to 2.5 hours! You’ll just need to check periodically to see if they’re done – at the end of an hour, pull a tamal from the side, and one from the middle of your steamer, and open each – when they’re done, the dough will easily pull away from the sides of the husk, and the tamal will hold its form well – if they are mushy and soft looking, give them another ½ hour, then test again – in my big Thai steamer, they take 1.5 hours.
- Don’t shortcut the whipping of the lard or shortening – this is a pain in the ass, but it is critical to lightness and body of the tamal – the idea is to whip air into the lard, and the whip attachment does this better than the paddle, but is more difficult to clean off.
- You have many options in the choice of shrimp – if you have small or medium size, you can use them whole – if you have large shrimp, you may halve them or chop them – or you may use the tiny salad shrimp, which work well, even though they are cooked, and often are the most inexpensive of all choices.
- As you mix in the dry masa and liquid, be careful not to have your liquid too warm – if the liquid is too hot, it’ll start to melt the whipped lard, which will ruin the structure of the tamales.
- You may make your tamales as large as you wish – the size of the wrapper is your only limitation.
Traditionally, these are eaten without sauce – but if you want to use a sauce, have at it. I like to serve them with a salad, and rice and beans – and I make beans quickly by opening a can of pintos or black beans, and adding them to a saute of onion, garlic, and chopped tomato, with a pinch or two of ground coriander, rather than the more mundane Mexican spices such as cumin or chili.
Now invent some reason to celebrate and enjoy.