How To Make Salvadoran Tamales: Authentic Tamale Recipe

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Mexican tamales

Do you want to learn how to make tamales? This authentic recipe is a great way to get started. The cooking process is fun and the end result is a great family meal. 

Here's how to make Salvadoran tamales (wrapped in banana leaves).

Salvadoran Tamales (Tamales Salvadoreños)

Total Servings: 70 tamales
Serving: 1 or 2 tamales

The number of servings may look huge, but tamales are something to share with relatives, friends, co-workers, and club or church members, or sold in a fundraiser.

For lesser quantities, except for the salty-water brine for the steamer, reduce ingredients and steaming time proportionally. Tamales can be served at breakfast, lunch or supper.

This kind of tamales -with some variants- is found in what was former Mayan territory, that is, in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Southern Mexico (Veracruz, Yucatan, and Chiapas). Their common trait is that they are wrapped in banana leaves rather than in the corn husks used in most Mexican tamales. Banana leaves give tamales a richer and tastier flavor. For even more taste, tamales in this recipe are embellished with non-native garnishes such as capers, olives and garbanzos.

Some ingredients such as achiote and large Spanish capers, as well as utensils such as the double-decker steamer, can be found in Salvadoran or Mexican grocery stores.

Making tamales may look laborious and complicated, but it's a fun and unique experience that the entire family can participate in and enjoy. As a matter of fact, an assembly line approach is the best way to prepare this meal.

Furthermore, parents and children can enjoy a family quality time of togetherness while nipping and snacking on the garnishings.

The following paragraphs give detailed lists of utensils, ingredients, and instructions that empower even the novice to excel as a master chef in the culinary art of making Salvadoran Tamales.

1.1- Large double decker steamer
1.2- Large cooking spoon
1.3- Large (3 gallon) mixing bowl to prepare masa (corn batter)
1.4- Large stainless steel pot to cook recaudo (meat stew)
1.5- Large flat surface to layout ingredients&garnishings and wrap up tamales
1.6- Mortar, to make pumpkin seed paste
1.7- Spacy flat tamal-preparation surface such as top of counter or nook

The ingredients encompass (1) meat and recaudo (stew), (2) corn-flour masa (batter), (3) garnishings, (4) wrappings and (5) the steam to cook the tamales. Those ingredients are detailed next:

2.1- Meat and Recaudo (Stew)
4 Pounds of meat (beef sirloin, pork roast, chiken or duck), diced into 1/2" cu. in. chunks, or shredded 1.5" long
4 Cubes of beef broth
1 Head of garlic, minced
1 Large onion, minced
3 Large bay leaves, whole
1/8 Teaspoon of dried oregano, chipped
1/8 Teaspoon of dried thyme, chipped
1/8 Teaspoon of dried basil, chipped
3 Large tomatoes
6 Cups of water
1 Teaspoon of salt
1 Tablespoon of spiced achiote
1 Tablespoon of cocoa, unrefined
1 Bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 Bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
1/8 Tablespoon of coriander, powder
1/2 cup of shelled pumpkin seed, made paste in mortar

2.2- Corn-Flour Masa (Batter)
1 Package (4.4 lb.) of MASECA corn flour (Some tortillerias such as the one in the Tropicana food store in east San Jose sell fresh masa, corn dough that is; you will need only 1 pint of water. Get 20 pounds of fresh masa)
3 Cups of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Cup of garlic powder
1/2 Cup of onion powder
12 Cubes of chicken broth
1 Gallon of water (1 pint if using fresh masa. See above.)
1 Tablespoon of salt

2.3- Garnishings
1 Cup of capers
2 Cups of pitted, pimento stuffed green olives
2 cups of pre-cooked (canned), shelled garbanzo beans
3 Large potatoes, boiled or microwaved and cut into 1/4 in. wide, 3 in. long strips
2 Large red bell pepper, shredded into 1/8 in. wide, 2 in. long stripes
1 Large green bell pepper, shredded into 1/8 in. wide, 2 in. long stripes
10 Large garlic teeth, minced

2.4- Wrappings

2 Bags of frozen, pre-cooked banana leaves, defrosted and thoroughly washed, cut into 12 in. X 12 in. squares
3 Rolls of aluminum foil (25 sq. ft. or 8 1/2 yards X 12 in.) cut into 12 in. X 12 in. squares

2.5- Steam
2 Gallons of water
4 Tablespoons of salt

3.1- Meat and Recaudo (prepared first, on the eve)
3.1.1- Carefully decant all ingredients at once in boiling water, stir vigorously until mixed and cover it until brought back to a boil.
3.1.2- Lower heat to simmer temperature. Simmer for 3 hours stirring every 15 minutes or less to avoid sticking to the bottom and burning.
3.1.3- Let it rest overnight tightly covered.
3.1.4- Next day, using simmer temperature, bring it to boil, and simmer for about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes or less to avoid sticking to the bottom and burning.
3.1.5- Let it rest tightly covered until it cools down from hot to warm.

3.2- Wrappings(prepared second, on the day tamales are cooked)
3.2.1- Place the wrappings also at arm's length on tamal-preparation surface.

3.3- Garnishings (prepared third, on the day tamales are cooked)
3.3.1- Place garnishings seprate, preferable in partitioned tray if available. If not available, use small flat platters and place at arm's length on tamal-preparation surface.

3.4- Masa (Batter, prepared fourth tamales are cooked)
3.4.1- Mix all ingredients in large bowl until masa (batter) acquires an even texture. When ready masa should feel about three times thicker than pancake batter. Add more water if necessary. Add salt as needed to fit your taste and diet.

3.5- Tamal Making and Steaming
3.5.1- Lay out aluminum foil square on tamal-preparation surface.
3.5.2- Lay out banana leave square on top of aluminum foil square.
3.5.3- Pour a heaping cooking-spoon of masa on center of banana leave.
3.5.4- Making a depression in center of masa, pour three full table spoons of recaudo on center of masa.
3.5.5- Place meat cube at center of depression on batter/recaudo.
3.5.6- Sprinkle 4 to 5 capers on top of batter/recaudo.
3.5.7- Toss in 2 olives on top of batter/recaudo.
3.5.8- Toss in 3 to 4 garbanzos on top of batter/recaudo.
3.5.9- Toss in 1 potato dice on top of batter/recaudo.
3.5.10- Toss in 1 stripe of red pepper on top of batter/recaudo.
3.5.11- Toss in 1 stripe of green pepper on top of batter/recaudo.
3.5.12- Toss in a pinch of minced fresh garlic on top of batter/recaudo.

NOTE: At this point, except for the wrapping, a tamal has been put together.

3.5.13- Wrap up tamal on four sides with banana leave avoiding any leakage as much as possible.
3.5.14- Wrap up tamal on four sides with aluminum foil, making sure to seal off the seams of foil to further avoid leakage.

NOTE: At this point a tamal has been put together thoroughly.

3.5.15- Accommodate a batch of half of the tamales in each of the steamer decks in interleaved layers, in such a way that steam circulation is allowed.
3.5.16- Bring salty water brine in steamer bowl to a boil.
3.5.17- Stack the two decks on top of steamer bowl.
3.5.18- Steam for a total of 4 hours, making sure you carefully trade deck places every hour so that steaming is even. ( First hour deck A goese under deck B, reverse positions every hour.)

3.6- Tamal Served directly from the Steamer
3.6.1- Tamales can be served at breakfast, lunch or supper. Accompany tamales with hot chocolate or coffee at breakfast, or cold ale or lager at lunch or supper. Enjoy!

3.7- Freezing the Tamales (Read defrosting first, please)
3.7.1- Let tamales cool down to room temperature.
3.7.2- Pack in sealed plastic bags. Make sure that tamales have cooled before placing them in plastic bags to avoid a heated plastic bag emitting fumes that would permeate the tamale, spoiling its delicate aroma and flavor.
3.7.3- Freeze them.

3.8- Defrosting and Serving Tamales
3.8.1- Defrosting tamales may prove tricky. If heated wrong, they may get sandy, chewy, or crunchy. The best result is obtained if tamales are left to thaw at room temperature.
3.8.2- Once thawed, discard aluminum foil wrap and, still wrapped in banana leave wrap tamal in polyurethane foil ("Saran wrap"), then microwave tamal for 2 1/2 minutes at high temperature.

Now you know how to make tamales. Share this authentic recipe with friends and family so they can start making them as well. 


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Thank you for taking the time to post this great recipe!

By Amanda Larson