"Tamalada" - Artist: Carmen Lomas Garza

This has always been one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite artists. “Tamalda” by Carmen Lomas Garza depicts the Latina tradición Navideña of tamal-making as a family.

Every year as I make tamales by myself, I think wistfully what it would be like to be surrounded by generations of women, each of us with our own task, but sharing laughter and conversation, working together to make tamales and memories.

Growing up in an Anglo household means my grandmothers, my mother, aunts and sisters do not know how to make tamales. This is not a family tradition from my side of the family that I am continuing, rather it is one that I’m trying to start for my own children – although they are boys. Maybe I will teach their wives, or their daughters some day – but when they think of Navidad, I want them to close their eyes and taste tamales – I want them to have that connection to their roots.

I’ve been asked why I don’t making tamales with my Suegra, which is logical since Suegra has certainly participated in many “tamaldas” with her sisters – but she goes back to El Salvador each year for the winter, so it isn’t something I share with her and it’s not something I learned from her. Our recipes are very different; Suegra favors the green banana leaves for wrapping her mild-flavored tamales, and I prefer corn husks to wrap my spicy tamales. Like many things between us, making tamales together probably wouldn’t work out.

I’m not as saddened about making tamales by myself anymore though, because this past weekend, my mother, sisters and nephew came to my house for our annual cookie-baking. As I watched my mother alternate between rolling out the dough and moving galletas in and out of the oven, while my sisters and the boys sat around the table decorating the trays of cut out sugar cookies she provided, I remembered the Carmen Lomas Garza painting.

Maybe an annual “tamalada” is not possible, but our “galletada” is close enough.


  1. You should totally gather some girlfriends and have a tamalada with amigas. My sister and I do that since we do not live in the same state. Luckily this year we did have a tamalada with our mother and our girls which was wonderful. But in the past we share the tradition with our friends and children. And your galletada is great too — Children LOVE to be in the kitchen and so no matter what they are making they will treasure those memories. Feliz Navidad!!!

  2. Galletada – I love it! Sounds like you all had a grand time.

    Interestingly enough, while I’m very Latina, I have never experienced a tamalada, because contrary to popular belief, it’s not really a tradition in ALL of Latin America. While Peruvians do eat tamales – we have a lot of different versions, in fact – I don’t necessarily associate them with Christmas… That said, I wouldn’t mind at all getting some tamales from someone else’s tamalada, jajaj!!

  3. Beautiful post Tracy! Although we did not have any such traditions in my family, I always wished that we did. Group cooking is so much fun, whether with family or friends. I love how you make sure the children are always in touch with their culture. Save me some tamales, yum! :)

  4. awww… i think u are mexican i noticed a friend from Nicaragua like to wrap her tamales like your suegra and most mexicanss perfer the corn husks and spicy flavor. My mom never made tamales either but we ALWAYS decorated sugar cookies together and ur sons will remember that! You must provide me with a tamale recipe i lack in the whole cooking area, but i want to make tamales

    • Tamale recipes are hard, its all by feel and depends on the weather, the masa, how lean or fat the meat was, etc. There are a million variable. I think the easiest way to start would be to do tamales de rajas con queso. You could get the hang of how the masa should feel, how much to put on the hojas, how long to steam, before you worry about a labor-intensive filling as well. Also we use a knife like you use to mud walls, it spreads the masa more easily.

    • Hey Cabrona :) The preference for corn husks is probably because the tamales I first ate were made with them. By the time Suegra introduced me to the other kind, I had developed a preference. (The banana leaves leave a flavor on the masa that I’m not crazy about, and I feel like it makes them slimier. Also, I like the texture that the corn husks leave on the masa.) – Ni modo, I think you’re right that most Central Americans prefer the bananas leaves, but they are also used in parts of Mexico – depends on the region.

      As for a recipe – sure! My recipe changes each year as I see other recipes or taste other people’s tamales and get ideas, (like last year I had tamales from my husband’s co-worker’s wife which I think they had cheese and hoja santa in them and I’d like to add that), so – this is not an exact science. Also, I use canned products which is very gringa of me. I’m sure that makes some of the more “pro” cooking bloggers cringe, but I think the flavor isn’t really affected in this case. It’s up to you if you’d rather use fresh ingredients. Lastly, seems like a lot of people use lard in the masa. My Suegra doesn’t and I haven’t had the heart to add it even though I suspect it gives a really good flavor – so, something to consider.

      Note: This recipe is easily made vegetarian by omitting the chicken, and using vegetable broth in place of chicken broth.

      Latina-ish Tamales

      What you need:

      Dry corn husks
      Aluminum foil
      MASECA (instant corn masa flour for tortillas)
      1 whole chicken – boiled, (remove skin and bones and shred into small pieces)
      Chicken broth – (use the broth from the chicken you cooked. Seems to be more flavorful than canned/boxed broth.)
      Your favorite salsa (jar or homemade – about 16 oz.)
      1 can chick peas/garbanzo beans
      1/2 a minced onion
      3 tablespoons fresh minced garlic
      2 cans of uncut green beans
      1 32 oz. can diced potatoes
      1 can of chiles in adobo sauce
      achiote molido (annatto powder)
      achiote entero (whole annatto)
      cooking oil
      salt and pepper

      1. Fill a big bowl with hot water in your sink. Submerge the corn husks in the water to soften.

      2. In another big bowl, pour about 1/4 of the bag of MASECA. (Optional: Add a couple tablespoons of achiote molido and couple tablespoons of salt to the flour before mixing in liquid.) Little by little, work in all the broth with your hands. At this point you will probably need several cups of water. Add a little at a time and work it in until your masa (dough), is about the consistency of chocolate chip cookie dough, (without the lumps of chocolate. lol.) – It should be spreadable with a spoon, but not watery. Set aside.

      3. Rip off 30 squares of aluminum foil, (about 1 foot by 1 foot each.) … This will be used to secure the tamales while cooking if you have trouble folding them securely closed. If you’re more skilled, you won’t need the foil. (I haven’t gotten that good though, and this is not an authentic method. Needless to say, your abuela probably didn’t use foil. LOL.) – Some people tie them closed. Look up methods online, but I’m telling you, foil makes it way easier.

      4. If you don’t have a large steamer pot, you will need to loosely crumple foil balls enough to cover the bottom of your largest pot with a tight fitting lid. Once the bottom of the pot is covered in foil balls, fill it with water – BUT the water should not be higher than the foil balls. The foil balls keep the water off the tamales since the tamales are not boiled – they are steamed. If you have a steamer pot and know how to use it, all the better!

      5. Now the filling: In a large pan, heat a few tablespoons of cooking oil. Add 1 tablespoon of achiote entero. Cook briefly until oil turns orange-red. Remove from heat. Remove the achiote with a spoon and discard so that all that is left in the pan is the oil. If you don’t have achiote entero, just heat some regular oil.

      6. Put the pan back on the medium heat, saute onion and garlic until tender. Add the drained cans of potatoes, chick peas and green beans as well as the chicken. Combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. (This year I will add some sort of queso and hoja santa.)

      7. In a bowl, pour your salsa. Add to it about a tablespoon of the sauce from the “chiles in adobo sauce” can. Be careful how much you add and don’t use the actual chiles. This stuff is really powerful. If your family doesn’t like spicy, you might not want to use it at all. If they do, feel free to put the chiles in a blender, grind them up and add them to the salsa but it will be VERY spicy.

      When you have the salsa as spicy as you like it, add it to the pan containing the chicken mixture. Combine well, remove from heat.

      8. Now for assembly. Take a corn husk from the water, making sure it isn’t too small or ripped, and shake it dry a bit. Put it on a square of foil. Spread a big spoonful of masa (dough), onto the husk in the middle, spreading it out in a sort of rectangle shape, but don’t go too close to the edges. (There are tamal tutorials online, so look around for them. Video would be the best way to learn this.)

      On top of the masa, place a spoonful of the chicken mixture.

      Now fold the corn husk closed, (again, hard to explain, so look online for a tutorial if you don’t know how.) … Then I take the extra step of enclosing each one in foil so they don’t open up.

      Repeat this until you run out of either corn husks, dough, mixture, or energy ;) — But this made about 30 when I ran out of dough, but I had enough mixture for maybe 60 and could have made more dough if I wasn’t exhausted. Anyway, the leftover filling is good to eat on rice :)

      Stack them all in your steamer pot on medium to low heat with the lid closed. I’m not sure how long. I must have left them for over an hour just to be certain. Check once in awhile, (though not too often as you’ll lose your steam), to make sure there’s enough water in there – if not, add a little.

      To be sure the tamal is done – best to take one out, unwrap the foil, and let it cool for a little bit to give the masa a chance to become the right texture. Then you can unwrap the corn husk and check to see if the masa is properly cooked, (it shouldn’t be too mushy – it should be firm…difficult to explain exactly. I know you’ve eaten tamales so just judge the doneness based on personal experience of what it should look/feel/taste like when cooked.)

      Okay – that’s the best I can do! I hope you understood :)

  5. Porque no haces la tamalada con sus amigas gabachas? me encantan los tamales y he tenido unas tamaladas con mis amigas mas de cinco años seguidos. Ahora tengo friends who are Boricua or Jewish or African-American who are tamaleras exquisitas! We have to embrace the beautiful mixed-up nation we are. Just this month we have celebrated Januca with my best friend’s family, she has rolled tamales with me, and we will all go to Misa for nochebuena, even though most of my friends are not catholic or even religious at all. Especially for the benefit of your kids, who will need to understand where they fit across two culture, assimilate as many fun traditions as you can into your Guadalupe-Reyes!

  6. Hello there,

    I love the post and it made me think of the most recent visit to my parents. As soon as you walk in, the smell of tamales was in the air, it smells like cumin. Mom buys the cumin whole, roasts it in a pan and then grinds it herself. She says she gets more flavor that way and uses less of it.

    I love trying tamales from different countries and willing to taste them. Mom only makes them a few times a year as they are so much work. Colombian tamales are like a full on meal in a neat little package. Pork, chicken, beef, potatoes, carrots to name a few ingredients. They require so much work and are greatly appreciated much more.


  7. Aww, the point is to gather with family and share time together. Many years ago I gathered my PTA moms (mostly Asian mommies) at my house to make tamales. We had worked hard all year long on several projects and it was my way of expressing the joy they brought to me that year. With that said, my uncle married a guerra and she and her daughter like to eat tamales but not help make them. Just go with what works for you.

  8. LOL@ galletada. I fear trying to make tamales, I know I could never get the masa right. It is awesome that you do it. I also prefer hoja de elote to banana leaf, the perfume of the corn husk is so earthy and comforting. Tis the season! Mmmmh!

    • Don’t fear the masa! It is way easier than people think it is. In fact, I think it’s pretty difficult to screw up. I make tamales every year and have done so for several years, (without having been raised with them), and I have NEVER messed up the masa. Just find a recipe from a reputable website and follow it to start – then you can toy with it as you become more comfortable!

  9. […] “When I was little, my mother always made cookies around Christmas time. Decorating the sugar cookies with my sisters is an especially happy memory. Now grown with our own children, we carry on the tradition by getting together a week or two before Christmas to make and decorate cookies as a family… Since my husband is Salvadoran and I’ve been immersed in Latin American culture, I also make tamales this time of year. I learned about “tamaladas” — (when families get together for the holidays to make tamales) – and it made me feel a little lonely making my tamales all by myself — but then I realized that our cookie tradition is really similar. I’ve started calling them “galletadas.” […]

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