Preparing Traditional Tamales at La Tamaleria la Palapita in Valladolid
Will you travel any distance necessary for good food? Well we've certainly got something to make your mouth water then! Whenever we travel, we like to experience the local food and flavours and participate in celebrations of the local culture. We love the stories and the grand tradition that preparation and enjoyment of true authentic food carries with it. After her recent trip to Mexico, Re-CreationWORLD founder, Colleen, shares her authentic experience of making the yummiest of all Mexican classics: the tamale!
Local cuisine displays the beauty and bounty of the surrounding environment and the preparation is a living history lesson of life and cultural adaptation to the earth. The tamale, 'sacred food of the gods' and prestigious representation of Yucatecan cuisine, is the story of Mayan culture, all wrapped up into one small life-sustaining package.
It is believed that tamales originated in the Yucatan - then, as a hearty, durable, portable essential food, it migrated and adapted to local environments and interpretation throughout Mexico, South America and other regions of Spanish influence. Maize (corn) is sacred to Mayan People as it connects them with their ancestors, who are believed to have been created from white and yellow corn. The essential ingredient in tamales is corn, thus they have played a part in ancient rituals and continue to be served as an important part of today's feasts and festivals.
Tamale preparation is complex, time-consuming and traditionally a community or family project. So, in its original form, it is not easily found as a street food or even in restaurants in the tourist centers of the Yucatan Peninsula. However, its fast food descendants, the taco and tostada (made with corn flour tortillas) are, and you can enjoy many fabulous variations as you honour the past in a celebration of all that a tamale has become to Mexican food today!
Luckily for us, EcoColors Tours provided the opportunity to discover the traditional tamale and to fully experience Mexican communal cooking by organizing a tamale cooking lesson for us at Tamaleria la Palapita or La Palapita de Los Tamales, as it is known on Facebook and Trip Advisor. La Tamaleria is THE place for traditional flavours of the Yucatan and tamales, in Valladolid.
We escaped the disturbance of mass tourism in Cancun, before dawn, decompressing as the day began in the small Mayan communities along our way. A couple of hours later we arrived in the quiet but vibrant colonial town of Valladolid, in the heart of the Yucatan.
Chef Alejandro welcomed us with great enthusiasm to La Tamaleria where we discovered we were very honoured to be the first group that he would give a lesson on preparing the traditional tamale recipes taught to him by his mother and grandmother. Apparently, the only other to have this privilege was Rick Bayless, renowned restaurateur and culinary documentarian of Mexican and Yucatecan Cuisine - something Alejandro was very proud of and we were equally impressed by.
We wandered through the kitchen, as all clients are encouraged to do, to appreciate the freshness of the produce and authentic preparation techniques, arriving in a courtyard with tables, sour orange trees and an open fire cooking area on the side. The defining flavours of Mayan cooking seem to be: achiote, a red seed ground into a spice mix paste called recado rojo; citrus, especially orange and lime; habaneros; and smoke. All were present in our experience here - most prominently the recado rojo which flavoured both tamale dough and sauce and the smoke!
In the courtyard we sampled some steamed breakfast tamales, either pork or vegetarian made with edible spinach-like leaves of chaya and filled with beans and pumpkin seeds. We then set about our training. Chef Alejandro and his staff were to spend the day preparing tamales for a traditional Mayan wedding feast the following day. We had just gathered with Familia Tamaleria for a grand tamale production line.
Tamales in the Yucatan, as in most tropical countries, are wrapped in banana leaves so we were shown how to separate the leaves from the stem and tear them into sections for wraps. Typically, tamales have a meat filling surrounded by dough - masa (white corn flour) mixed with manteca (pork lard) and meat broth. We made two different kinds, one with x'pelones (Mayan beans) in the dough and a spicy red meat sauce and eggs inside, the other featured pulled pork, egg and vegetables. Despite our inexperience - watch the "8-second tamale" in our Mexico Instagram Stories - we succeeded in contributing about 100 tamales destined for the oven and the wedding festivities. A couple were reserved and baked in traditional fashion over the open flame of the courtyard fire, producing charred packages of crispy flavourful tamale, that I much preferred over the steamed breakfast version.
Alejandro was such a welcoming host and we all had a grand time (including my partner who is not into cooking and spent his time in the kitchen learning to speak Mayan and resting in the courtyard hammock). We highly recommend that any cultural tour of the Yucatan includes a visit to La Tamaleria. If you would like to experience the full tamale cooking experience check out our introduction to EcoColors Tours and contact them to see what can be arranged. As a Re-CreationWORLD community member, watch for exclusive and special offerings for EcoColors' services in our monthly magazine. If your travels take you to La Tamaleria, say "hola" to Alejandro from his first tamale cooking school graduates.