To accompany the Mesoamerican section of episode 3 of the History of Food, we’re making authentic ancient tamales in the earth oven, just like would have been done in pre-urban Mexico and Guatemala.
These tamales are a little plain, and lack the fat and leavening agents that help make modern tamales so delicious. We’re making ours with only the ingredients the ancient Mesoamericans had, that is with corn, lime, and water.
But that’s okay, we’ve got some other authentic ingredients to help the flavor along. Black beans for filling, and chili sauce for garnish, and roasted squash as a side are going to give us flavor and depth, even if the tamale itself is bare bones.
Sweetcorn or Popcorn won’t work. You need plain field corn for this, which in some areas can be hard to come by. You can find it in many Mexican markets, almost any tortilleria, or if you’re truly lucky, a farmer.
For the tamales:
400g Plain Field corn (NOT sweet or popcorn)
6g Cal (pickling lime)
5 cups water
Dried corn husks for wrapping the tamales
For the Black bean filling:
3/4 cup dry black beans
5 cups water
1 fresh chile
1 medium onion
For the Chili sauce:
6-7 fresh chiles
Seeds from 1 squash or pumpkin
This one doesn’t lend itself to a summarized set of instructions. You’re just gonna have to read through the whole thing. In very very short, you have to nixtamilify your corn by cooking it in a lime and water solution, let it sit overnight, then rub off the bran and pound it into masa flour for tamale dough. Then, fill them with cooked black beans, wrap them in corn husks, and steam until cooked.
Adding the lime to the corn gives tortillas and tamales their distinctive flavor beyond regular cornmeal, and also turn a questionably nutritious grain into a healthy source of protein and calcium. Along with beans and squash, it was the healthiest meal by far in all the ancient world.
It was all made possible by the gardening technique called the three sisters: Corn, beans, and squash, growing in a symbiotic ecosystem.
The corn grows its tall stalk, which the beans can climb to prosper, meanwhile enriching the soil for the corn with nitrogen. Squash growing on the surrounding ground shades the roots, and protects plant from pests and predators.
THE NIGHT BEFORE
Add the corn, lime powder, and water to a pot and put on the heat.
Cook on a heavy simmer for anywhere from 30-60 minutes. In that window, test kernels by (lightly at first!) biting them in half. The corn is done when it is soft on the outside and easily bitten through, but with slightly uncooked center. The corn will have changed color, already loosing some of it’s tough bran. When bisected, the raw middle will look white and almost powdery.
At that point, turn off the heat, cover and let it sit overnight. While you’re at it, cover the beans in water, add a tablespoon of salt, and let them soak right alongside it.
THE NEXT DAY
Tear a few of your corn husks into strips you can use to tie up the tamales, and get the rest soaking whole in water to make them more pliable.
MAKE YOUR BEANS
Make sure to drain the beans and rinse off any salt water.
Then, in a pot over medium heat, sautee a diced onion and chile pepper. Add your beans, and 4-5x water, bringing the whole thing to a boil, then turning down to a simmer.
Cook on low for 4-6 hours, until the beans are tender. Add water as necessary to keep the texture moist and somewhat soupy, but still thick. When the beans are done, use a potato masher or the back your spoon to mash cooked beans and further develop the texture. Simmer a little longer and it’s done.
MAKE YOUR CHILI SAUUCE
On a baking sheet. Arrange several halved and semi-cleaned (depending on how spicy you want) chiles. I used good old jalepenos. Arrange them on a baking tray and salt, cooking in a very low oven (175-200F) for 3 hours or until nearly dehydrated and dry.
Take the seeds out of whatever squash you’re using, and add them onto the tray, spread out so they dry and roast. Cook with chiles in the oven for another hour or two until everything is nice and toasty.
Grind everything up to a powder in your mortar and pestle or blender with some green onions, then simply add water and salt to turn it into a paste or sauce. Let marinate a few hours before dinner.
Now for the main event. . .
Rinse the corn in a strainer under running water, rubbing between your hands to remove the brand, which should come off easily, and expose the kernel underneath. See picture above for what a branned and branless corn kernel look like.
Corn with most of the bran washed off
Now it’s time to pound it into masa harina.
I was able to do a large handful at a time in my small mortar and pestle, processing all of it in six rounds. My arm was quite tired by the end of it.
You have to start with light but continuous pounds, and focus on the individual kernels, pushing them from the edge to the center where you pulverize them with direct hits. When all the kernels are busted open and getting smashy, you can up the power, incorporating grinding motions as well to mix up from the bottom, but still mostly pounding, until you get a more floury like texture.
You can do this with a food processor as well, but it will require you to add extra water to it, and thus probably be forced to add some pre-made masa flour to it to get it the right consistency, which defeats the whole purpose of doing it from scratch.
This is also where, in a modern tamale recipe, you’d whip in your pork fat and baking powder, and by all means, there’s no shame. It’s going to taste better that way, but the ones I’m making here are, sigh, for science. . .
Slowly mix in water a couple tablespoons at a time, and season with salt.
If you are making tortillas, go easy until a coarse dough is sticky enough to come together but not adhere all over your hands. You should be able to shape it into smooth surfaces, and flatten it without it cracking. If it cracks, add more water.
For tamales, use more water until you get the consistency of thick hummus. It should be very spreadable.
Left: for tortillas, Right: for tamales; Nothin’ but corn, lime, and water.
Now to assemble the tamales. It’s easier than you’d think. Spread out a thick layer of your masa paste and shape it into a square with plenty of space around it. Put the filling down the middle in a thin line, fold one side over, then bring the other side over to complete the roll up. Then simply tie it off.
TIME TO COOK
If you want to keep thinkgs simpler, cook the tamales in a steamer for 40-60 minutes until done.
But we’re going to make ours the old old old old fashioned way, in an Earth Oven, just like the pre-Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec Mesoamericans would have.
Like any other recipe, get the earth oven hot by building a fire that covers its floor and keeping it burning for an hour. While you wait, roast your squash directly on the fire for later.
When the oven’s nice and hot, lay down a thin layer of insulation leaves, then your tamales. Cover with plywood or a thick fabric, bury with dirt, and let cook for 3 hours.
Time to unwrap and plate. They won’t look too different but you can poke em to see if they’re firmed up and done. Warm the squash back up and give it salt and a light mash.
Spicy. Simple. Delicious.