I’ve been promising for some time to do shrimp tamales, and I think the time is ripe. Tamales are a steamed bread, and therefore join a limited but distinguished list of the world’s breads. First a little background.
I am speaking of Mexican tamales here, to differentiate from the tamales of other Latin American nations, which, although similar to Mexican, may also be quite different. And when I speak of the Mexican tamale, I am referring to the bready dough made with masa (masa de maiz, or more appropriately, masa nixtamalera) -the same ground, processed corn meal used to make tortillas- but with added refinements, such as lard or shortening for tamales. BTW, masa is NOT the same as U.S. cornmeal – they are not interchangeable.
I think, were I not a cook, that I’d have some trouble identifying corn masa as the same stuff used to make both tortillas and tamales, for the tastes of each are quite different – there is, to me, an added level of taste in a tamale when compared to a tortilla. And of course the texture of each is very different. And tamales are always wrapped in something -usually corn husks or banana leaves- to protect them while they steam (parchment paper is a perfectly good sub).
Tamales are much more prevalent in Mexico than in the Mexican restaurants of the U.S., and the reason is no secret – they are a time consuming preparation, some would say, a pain in the ass to make. And in the U.S., this fact makes them a good way to judge the character of a Mexican restaurant – if you find house-made tamales on the menu of a Mexican restaurant in the U.S., it is likely to be a family operation, and the food of a high quality. If American chain Mexican restaurants have tamales on the menu, they tend to be mass produced and frozen rather than made in-house. But, it’s more likely you’ll not even see them on the menu.
Another way to identify a bad Mexican restaurant is to note those woeful places in the U.S. that specialize in ‘instant enchiladas’, where a spoonful of something is wrapped in a tortilla and hot sauce poured over the top, and it is immediately served with rice and beans. Unfortunately, this includes the majority of restaurants. To me, this isn’t even an enchilada, which I’d define as stuffed tortillas, laid in a pan, sprinkled with cheese and baked with a sauce over all – a very different thing entirely, which one is much more likely to find in Mexico than in the U.S. Just remember this – if you see that a Mexican restaurant is serving an enchilada w/o even a quick browning of the cheese covered top in the oven, you’ll know they are not even trying.
OK, back to our shrimp tamales. Throughout mainland Mexico, it is rare to find shrimp tamales, except of course on or near either coast. There, they will be available and popular. Tamales are a very basic peasant food, and have a long history, some 5000 to 8000 years, in the Central American Indian cultures. The Conquistadors were introduced to the tamale by their Aztec and Inca hosts; and the Conquistadors returned the favor by introducing the Indians to new diseases, stealing their gold, and annihilating their cultures.
I was introduced to the shrimp tamale by way of a charming, but quite common element of Mexican life – the street vendor. For several years, not long ago, we used to drive into Mexico to stay with a local family in a little fishing village on the west coast near Puerto Vallarta, for several months each year – sadly, we no longer make this winter sojourn, mostly because Mexico is no longer a safe place for tourists to drive, or even to go to. But we still have those wonderful memories.
Many times throughout the warm, dusty day, the quiet was often broken by loud, amplified (Mexico is a land of noise!) announcements of vendors of various food and household needs – the most common were the fruit and vegetable sellers, who generally had a pickup outfitted with slopping shelves in the bed, filled to overflowing with all sorts of delicious looking stuff. Each vendor had a distinctive sound, sometimes accompanied by music, but most usually, just voice alone. Some commodities, such as tanks of propane or bottles of water, had their own standardized spiels and sound, so that it was easy to know what was being sold, but not so easy to know who was selling it. But my favorite soon became the tamale seller, who only showed on Fridays and Tuesdays of each week.
The tamale man too had a pickup, but his truck only had 4 large aluminum garbage cans -hopefully never used for garbage- and a small, wooden work area in the back corner of the bed. Two of the cans, I would learn, contained the tamales – sometimes only shrimp, but occasionally one can would have chicken tamales as well. The other two cans were filled with ears of corn, which I would guess was the vegetable component of a whole meal. Tamales always seemed to be teamed with those ubiquitous ears of corn.
All of this was hot and ready to eat, although I only got the corn once – I have never adjusted to Mexican sweet corn! First of all, it’s not sweet, at least, not like ours is – maybe it’s not field corn, although that’s the idea I get when I taste it. I’ve also never adjusted to eating it as most Mexicans do – slathered with a bad imitation mayonnaise, and drowned in hot chili powder. My guess is that all that glop covers the innate bad taste of the corn – but that’s only a guess.
But the tamales were another story entirely. They were simply luscious and shrimpy good – but they did not overpower the distinct corn flavor of the masa tamale. They were about the size of your palm and they cost about 75c each – and I soon began to plan to have them at every opportunity – and why not, it really was one of the most economical dinner entrees we could have had – and a whole lot more delicious than most other choices.
So, here my friends, is a unique steamed bread, that will more than makeup for any extra effort required by amply rewarding you with a healthy jolt of deliciousness – I do hope you’ll get an opportunity to see just how delicious shrimp tamales are.
Puerto Vallarta Shrimp Tamales
- 1 oz dried shrimp (get at Hispanic or Asian markets – or use all chic broth)
- 1 cup of very hot water
- 1 cup of chicken broth, warm
- ½ – 1 lb raw shrimp
- 2 cups dry masa
- ½ cup of lard (or solid shortening), at room temp
- 2 tsp salt
- 1.5 tsp baking powder
- 1 small can of whole or minced green mild chiles (optional but nice)
- ¼ lb of a firm white cheese, like Jack or Cheddar (optional but nice)
- Enough corn husks to make 16-20 tamales – or you could use fresh banana leaves or baker’s parchment
- Grind the dried shrimp in a blender jar until 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 soft, about 5 minutes – it will be necessary to stop the mixer and scrape down the sides several times while doing this. You want to beat as much air as possible into the lard here.
- Now add the salt and baking powder to the dry masa.
- Add about a ¼ cup of the masa mix, and a ¼ cup of warm broth, alternately, with the mixer running at low speed – when all is mixed in, the dough should be light and fluffy, but be very moist as well – it will not be sticky, but easy to handle.
- 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 or a tsp. 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 – in my big Asian steamer, they take 1.5 hours.
I’ve made this with corn husks and with baker’s parchment, and for sure, it’s easier with the parchment. If you use corn husks -the very traditional wrapping- use the largest pieces you can, because during steaming, the dough is prone to leak out of the husks if they’re not well wrapped – so, the bigger the wrapping, the better. You won’t have that problem with parchment.
I’ve made small tamales here, about two fat tablespoons of dough in each – mostly, I forgot to add an additional Tbs of dough on top of each – Oh well – they’re still fine. I got 16 tamales – you could, of course, make them bigger, but remember that you’ll have to steam longer then. I let these go for an hour and a half, but, they probably were done at an hour – just test ’em.
Whatever steamer you use, you’ll have to add some additional water before the tamales are done. My big Thai steamer has a line about 1/4 way up the bottom section that you should not put water above – at full boil, my steamer takes about 35-40 minutes to run dry – so I set the timer for 30 minutes, and add more water then. I’ve never run out. You don’t want to run out! Aluminum melts at a low temperature.
Yes, these are labor intensive – but the way I look at it is, this is true of most of the world’s best dishes – and my goal is to sample all the world’s great foods. Besides, I’ve got plenty of time to devote to the task – so, why not?
I’ll leave you with one thought: even bad tamales are OK – these are something special. Don’t miss the experience.