Tamales: A Winter Tradition

One writer’s picks for the best in Austin

via Getty

Ancient Mesoamericans ate tamales. As a kid, I had no idea. My mother, kneading nixtamalized corn flour reconstituted with pork broth for extra flavor, didn’t either.

Had she known that the Aztecs, handed the tamal tradition from Olmecs and Toltecs, gifted tamales to the Spaniards, she would have scoffed righteously.

That added pork broth was my mother’s personal flair. Other home cooks might use chicken broth, water, tea made from tomatillo leaves, or some other liquid. Kitchen mixers help out today, but hand-kneading is still popular. By hand, kneading masa dough takes a long time. Consider it done when a tiny dollop floats in a cold glass of water. As an older kid allowed to help knead, I could never quite finish the job. I took turns working at it with my mom. Kitchen myths say only one pair of hands should ever touch the dough, and more will turn it sour. The year my mom tried a bag of the pre-mixed stuff, she returned it to the store three times complaining of the flavor, then went back to mixing it from scratch. She’d mix 20 pounds of dough all on her own.

Huge thanks to the tamale makers for doing the work to create these must-try Mexican dumplings. It’s work I remember well. As a kid, long before ever touching the dough or chile, I cleaned corn husks. This meant brushing, soaking, rinshing, and then blotting until every available kitchen towel was soaked and my hands itched. A ritual is a ritual, passed down from my mother’s mother, her mother before, and on and on. “Tamales are so labor intensive,” my mother said, “that we were not about to put beans in. We made them with pork.” Thus, I grew up eating pork tamales, a later evolution of a prehispanic food item, domestic pigs having been introduced to the Americas by Europeans. But pork is far from the only option. Oaxacans fill their tamales with mole. Beans are quite popular today. Frogs and salamanders are said to have been used in ancient times. In one brutal and gory legend, ancient deity Tzitzimitl sacrifices her grandson, the god Chicomexóchitl, and uses his flesh to make the first twenty tamales.

For those not surrounded by family eager to jump into a laborious kitchen bonding experience, here are my picks for the best tamales in Austin. In the course of my research, friends directed me both to local home kitchens and establishments all over Texas, but only Austin businesses welcoming the general public and those serving tamales year-round were considered fair game here. I limited my assessment to Mexican-style tamales, and though I grew up with homemade sweet tamales, they were never my favorite, so I skipped the dessert versions here, too.

Let’s be clear: Lard is not essential to dough, but many argue for it, adding that home-rendered lard is the only way to go. Shortening also works fine. It is possible to forgo both. Let taste and health dictate preference. On my list of best-of tamales, Delicious Tamales (1931 E. Oltorf), a woman-owned business that expanded from San Antonio into a small carry-out location on Oltorf this past December, uses lard. Their tamales land on the smaller side with the masa-to-filling ratio I prefer – a thinner smear of masa on the husk with lots of flavor in both dough and the meat. Tamales are freshly steamed and sold by the full or half dozen, with the classic pork, chicken, and bean flavors, spicy versions of each, and sweet tamales with coconuts, raisins, and pecans.

Tamale Addiction (courtesy of Tamale Addiction)

Tamale Addiction (multiple locations), however, forgoes lard. By now, anyone keen on shopping locally has seen their green booths set up at farmers markets across the city. They’re also available at coffee shops. Tamale Addiction is a longtime favorite, easy to love because of their more creative fillings and use of gluten free, organic corn masa. This Austin-grown brand crowdsourced recipes from family until they figured out their own, and they landed on a gold mine of flavor. Their hefty tamales use heaps of masa, but the masa is delicious, as are the fillings. At a recent festival, they were the only food I tried in 48-degree weather that kept warm long enough to finish eating it. Their chicken mole tamales are to die for, but they also make tamales filled with rajas, poblanos, and other vegetable fillings truly worth ordering.

Curra's Grill (photo by Christina Garcia)

One particular standout for beans, however, is the bean tamal at Curra’s (614 E. Oltorf and 4215 Duval St.). This bean filling is good and spicy, and is my clear winner for a bean tamal anywhere. A manager even let me peek at a huge tray of fresh tamales in the kitchen ready to be steamed, pointing out that they make them in-house. “Lard is far too expensive for use these days,” said the manager. For those a bit further south, the trailer Taqueria Morales (1415 W. William Cannon Dr #101) also dishes up a fantastic spicy chicken tamal made by the owner’s own mother, who was reached by phone to confirm that lard is not used here either.

Today’s restaurants often appreciate orders made ahead of time, so call ahead to reserve yours, and share them with your family. You never know who has yet to try these magical winter delicacies. One year, when I took tamales to a friend's house to share with her family, her New Yorker grandparents asked if you could eat the husk and I thought they were joking. They were sincere, as it turns out.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

tamales, tamal, Delicious Tamales, Tamale Addiction, Curras

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