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Earth Notes: Christmas Tamales

Kitchens all over the Southwest this time of year are filled with the irresistible scent of tamales steaming on the stove.

This Earth Note originally aired on KNAU December 25th, 2019.

Traditional tamales date back thousands of years to Mesoamerican cultures, including Mayan, Aztec and Guatemalan. They were, and still are, considered a sacred food of the gods. During the holiday season, tamales are a culinary requirement, as the small corn husk bundles are—not only delicious—but also seen as spiritual offerings.

Tamales are convenient and portable, and for those reasons, they’ve been modified and adapted in countless ways over time and distance. But the basics remain the same: the outer wrapper is a corn husk, or a banana leaf depending on geography. And the dough, or masa, is made from ground corn and some type of shortening, often lard. Maria Ortiz at Flagstaff’s La Nortenita Market, says you call fill tamales with just about anything, including slow-simmered pork or beef, spicy chilies, cheese, beans and fruit. Ortiz says in the not-so-distant past, people typically grew and raised all the ingredients for their own tamales. Now, you can buy pre-made masa online and in grocery stores across the globe.   

Since tamale making is labor-intensive, it’s often done in large batches when family and friends are gathered. Festive assembly lines are a fun holiday tradition in many homes: from laying out the corn husks, to spreading the masa, adding the fillings and wrapping the tamales to look like gifts before steaming them in a large pot for an hour or two. It’s a time-honored ritual that everyone can take part in.

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