It’s not Christmas in the Southwest without tamales. Tamales are such a labor intensive dish to make that it has become tradition to make them for very special occasions, like Easter, or Christmas. In Hispanic families, women often spend days making tamales before the holiday, and then give them as gifts. Tamales were here before the Europeans. There are records of the Aztecs serving tamales to the Spanish in the 1500s.
Every region has its own native style of tamales - all the Southwestern states (New Mexican tamales can rip roof of your mouth right off), all the Mexican states, all the Central American countries. The basic idea is to wrap a filling in masa (a type of corn flour), then a corn husk or banana leaf, and steam it - usually end-up - for half an hour or so. Now, the fun part is the filling. Usually, tamale filling is shredded pork, which can be flavored with a plethora of imaginative spices and ingredients. Chiles, of course, and cumin, garlic, and bitter chocolate.
But never think that a good cook will stop there. Out here in Arizona, as Christmas approaches, you can find tamales of every ilk imaginable - pumpkin, chocolate, pineapple and pork, bean with beef and rice, chicken, “green corn” tamales, stuffed with mild green chiles and cheese. Usually, tamales are served hot out of the steamer (don’t forget to remove the husk), so soft and juicy that adding a sauce is just gilding the lily.
I was not raised in the Latino tradition, so I was never an expert tamale-maker. I am simply lucky enough to live in a place where I can buy mine from those who are. There are many fabulous web sites where you can learn all about making tamales the old-fashioned way, but two that I particularly like are:
http://whatscookingamerica.net (once you get there, type 'Cynthia Pineda tamales' in the 'Search This Site' bar) and
So if cooking is your thing, start a whole new holiday tradition in your family. And if tamales are your holiday tradition, let us know your favorite kind.
P.S. I can't get the What's Cooking America link to work on this page, but you can copy and paste. I also found a fun recipe for duck tamales at http://nmmagazine.com/jollytamale_dec08/php