West Coast Tamalada

By el Andar Staff
Photos by Lois Robin


It’s tamal, not tamale.

In Spanish, the singular of tamales is tamal. Only in the U.S. Southwest has the ancient word tamal been changed to tamale (which should properly be pronounced tuh—mall-lee with a Texas accent).

How to tie a tamale


These amounts are for small-to medium-sized hojas

1) Place a large finger-sized portion of masa in the middle of the hoja, leaving space at each end.

2) Roll one side of the husk over the masa…

3) …then the other.

4) Fold the bottom up, about a third or more of the way.

5) Fold the top down and place a string or strip hoja behind the tamale.

6) Tie it up with a good knot.

7) Another way if the husks are smallish is to not fold as all, — just tie both ends.

At this California-style tamalada, cultures blend like the ingredients as Chicanos get back to their roots.

Mexican families have always gathered the whole, huge, extended family together when it’s time to make tamales. Tamaladas are like parties: the kids race through the house, the adults sit, drink beer and talk, and all the while, the serious cooks are preparing tamales in the kitchen. A tamalada can take many hours, but in the end, everyone is fed and usually has tamales to take home.

This modern-day tamalada came off a bit differently, as a new generation tried to recapture tradition in a distinctly California way. Luckily, there were some experts on hand to help: the Albas, Doña Gloria and Don Pano, were visiting from Mexico City, and they take cooking very seriously.

Among the guests were German visitors, Chicanos, Anglos, Mexicans and the ubiquitous Irish, an eclectic bunch of artists, social workers and one policeman. The setting was a sunny afternoon near the beach in the backyard of Reynaldo Barrioz, a local “cultural worker” and graphic artist. Reynaldo provided twenty pounds of masa, and the guests brought fillings and snacks. snacks.

Hojas -corn husks - are soaked in water to soften them.

The secret of the light and fluffy tamale is - more lard! Doña Gloria, not satisfied with the store-bought masa, whips up a few more bowls of Crisco (in place of the traditional pork fat) and works it into the masa. Doña Gloria insists we add chicken broth to the Crisco, though, to give it a meatier flavor.

The beginners dig in. Another kind of masa is prepared for the sweet tamales, this one with no chicken broth.Instead, sugar and cinnamon are mixed in. Gloria tastes and after more sugar is added, finally gives her approval.



One guest brought ingredients for the sweet tamales: fresh corn (it ran out and was supplemented with frozen) and pine nuts (a West Coast innovation), to make tamales de elote, the corn-in-corn tamales eaten early in the morning with atole or chocolate in western Mexico.

Now for the hardest part: filling and tying. Doña Gloria gives a demo, and guests struggle to catch on. Another beer?

Houston, we have a problem. Don Pano senses that the fire is not hot enough. The sun is setting and the tamale pots are brought inside to finish the job on a real stove. The guests are getting restless and are drinking in the kitchen.


Eight o'clock and they're still not done! This test tamale was not wrapped correctly and is falling apart, like the guests themselves.

Finally! Nine pm and the tired, hungry guests sample their work. The tamales are delicious. Quite a few guests have left and others are too tired to eat. Those who stuck it out will enjoy tamales for a week. And they freeze pretty well, too.


© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine


Recipe 1:

Tamales de elote


Fresh sweet corn cut off the cob, or frozen if necessary, to make about two cups.

One ounce of pine nuts (optional)

Raisins (optional)

Masa mixed with cinnamon and sugar to taste.

A little ground allspice or clove is also good.

Follow basic tamale preparation in diagram.

Recipe 2:



Slice five jalapeño peppers alongside and sauteé at low fire with half a white onion.

Set aside when they're well done.

Grill ten small tomatoes and blend them with a clove of garlic, a quarter white onion, a small stick of cinnamon, add salt to taste.

Pour the tomato sauce onto the jalapeños and cook until well done.

Add a cup of water and sauteé ten minutes

Put one or two spoonfuls of sauce on each tamal, adding a slice of queso fresco before wrapping.