Most people are familiar with the tamales from Mexico. I know my Chicago folk greatly appreciate the tamale man-a guy who goes around to the bars late at night with a cooler full of tamales. The standard Mexican tamales has the corn masa, the meat, and the corn husk-pretty simple. Guatemalan tamales are quite a bit more complex and, in my opinion, tasty. First off, instead of a corn husk, a banana leaf is used to wrap the tamale. Also, there is a very intricate pepian-like sauce that is heaped on top of the masa which gives it the robust flavor. Another main difference is the different vegetables used. In the tamales I ate, a mixture of olives, red peppers, peas, carrots, and potatoes were deliciously combined and steamed to perfection.
My first experience with Guatemalan tamales was on Halloween. Tamales are served on special occasions because, as I later learned, they take a long time to make. They were served with pieces of white bread, which I chose not to do. The second time was with a host family as leftover new years eve dinner. Both were delicious.
In preparation, I called ahead to make sure Pete's Produce carried frozen banana leaves (too bad there is no market in Chicago to get fresh banana leaves from the corner lady). Luckily, Pete's had everything I needed: masa de harina, banana leaves, vegetables, and the ingredients for the pepian sauce: dried ancho and guajillo chiles, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, onion and garlic. I found recipes at two different sites:
To make the sauce I toasted the peppers, their seeds, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds for about 10 minutes before adding them to the mixture of water, tomatoes, garlic, and onion. I pureed it and had my sauce. The next step was to make the masa. I mixed the water, masa, and salt over a low heat until the handle of the spoon stood upright in the masa. I chopped up the many vegetables I ended up buying (after a second trip to another grocer) including chayote, potato, sweet potato, yucca, olives, red peppers, and carrots. I then defrosted the frozen banana leaves with hot water and was ready to put the pieces of my tamale together. First, I plopped down a good bit of masa, followed by sauce, followed by vegetables, and another dollop of sauce. Then I folded the banana leaf like a present making sure there were no cracks in the leaf (or if there was, it was reinforced by another leaf) and tied it with a some random twine lying around the house. Lining the bottom of the steamer with leaves, they cooked for about an hour until they were ready. The result was much like I remembered: a soft combination of complex flavors. Yummy!
I also want to give a shout out to......
my mom, the sou-chef.