Sunday, April 10, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Tamale

One of the best parts of traveling is definitely trying new foods. Or, trying foods that are familiar, but you know you're just not getting the "real thing" so far away from the cuisine's origin.

I will confess, it did not take the lure of food to get me to pack up for a mid-winter hiking trip to Arizona. But, I love tamales almost as much as I love hiking, so it was a win-win for all. I packed up my hiking shoes and my hopes to go on a much different quest — find the perfect tamale.

Now, if you are thinking of the greasy, mushy kind you can get at the corner Tex Mex casual dining establishment? That is not a tamale. The best tamales have a masa around the filling that is either al dente, or light and fluffy depending on the filling. While a red chile pork is most common for many of us, traditional tamales can have many different fillings including chicken and seafood, vegetarian, or even sweet dessert fillings such as pineapple and coconut.

I really wanted to find that most unusual and most amazing tamale. What would it be?

Unattainable, to spoil the ending here. At least on that trip. Tamales are somewhat of a mystery. I could never find them on the menu in Mexican places where we ate. The cook at a taco stand mentioned his friend's sister would sell them. He placed a call, but she was gone. The next week was filled with the tiny sliver of hope here and there, someone's housekeeper or an aunt's cousin's sister. Deals were proposed, none materialized. At times it seemed like finding a good tamale was like some kind of illicit and secretive buy. And I am a lousy criminal.

On the last day, in the last hour of our vacation on a quick stop into an upscale grocery store, I finally saw an intriguing tamale. It was on the cover of a cookbook, Tamales, by Daniel Hoyer. I took this to be the sign that I was just going to have to make my own.

Hoyer's book is informative. It doesn't just show the how, but it shares the history and the why behind each step in the tamale-making process. There are a lot of steps, too.

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