New tamales going full steam ahead
New tamale varieties — savory and sweet — have got a full head of steam. From chocolate sauce to pineapple chunks, fillings for tamales are chugging well beyond the traditional chicken or beef.
They’re being sold in more places than the corner street vendor too. If you’re downtown, try tamales sold from the window of The Tamale Spaceship, a busy, new lunch truck circulating through Chicago’s Loop.
The cornmeal-based, steamed Mexican dumplings are becoming part of the U.S. urban snack landscape, much like they’ve always been south of the border.
“In Mexico, tamales are staple street food,” said Dudley Nieto, a respected Mexican chef in the Chicago area.
At Nieto’s San Gabriel Mexican Café in Bannockburn, his love of a wide variety of tamale flavors is reflected on his menu. This season, he’s introducing a chocolate-filled tamale. It’s a nod to history — both corn and chocolate have been used in Mexico for centuries.
Nieto also favors Tamale de Queso y Rajas, tamales filled with queso fresco cheese and thin strips of fire-roasted poblano peppers, which are indigenous to his native Puebla, Mexico. A hint of the cilantro-like Mexican herb, epazote, adds a slight lemony taste.
He loves shrimp tamales, too, the kind customarily made in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “I like the taste of shrimp with a silky, spicy amarillito mole,” Nieto said. He likes it so much that he also braises duck meat in the same mole to make duck tamales.
Nieto learned to make tamales by helping his grandmother while growing up in Mexico, where iguana meat is even an ingredient option. He started by helping her fold corn husks, and eventually began making and flavoring the tamale dough, which is called masa. With his grandmother, Nieto sometimes used banana leaves instead of corn husks to wrap tamales. The technique is popular in Mexico’s more tropical states of Veracruz and Oaxaca.
Nieto’s mother often made uchepos, which are fresh corn tamales. She also made tamales stuffed with chicken mole or poblano pepper mole.
“Making tamales is a family event,” Nieto said, with a laugh. “Families get together to make tamales and gossip.”
To make tamales at home, Nieto suggested using store-bought, prepared masa. “It is much quicker and easier to buy prepared tamale dough at the store,” he explained. Groceries also sell husks for wrapping tamales.