Have you ever made tamales? No, not tamale pie. My mother used to make that and as much as I enjoyed her cooking, tamale pie would not have been one of my favorites. From what I can remember, it was noticeably sweet, and comprised of hamburger, corn, and canned tomatoes. I’m not going to blame this on my mother, because I know it was the recipe. Tamale pie could never compare to homemade tamales.
The only source of comparison I have is that of local women who tempt office workers with their once-a-week offerings, wrapped in foil, and still piping hot. They’re amazing and so of course it’s a challenge to not eat one before taking them home to share for dinner. I’d say that’s a fairly good model to work from.
Often, tamales are made with dried corn husks, the masa, or corn meal and filling spread on the inside of a dried corn husk, or fresh banana leaf before steaming. The filling can be anything imaginable, and often is depending on who traditionally makes the tamales, and what region of Mexico or the Southwest U.S. they’re from.
If you’ve been studying Mexican cooking like I have the past few years, the idea of banana leaves wrapped around a savory filling is quite tempting; it sounds so exotic! A glance out my patio window focuses in on the not so big non-fruit bearing variegated leaf banana plant I’ve been nurturing as a possible source. No, I’d have to depend on a local market, which shouldn’t be a challenge in San Diego considering the influence of Mexican cooking, but it is.
When I first happened on to the lone 4-lb. package of huge sections of banana tree leaves recently, I grabbed it knowing I’d procrastinated long enough and could now make my own homemade tamales. I knew I didn’t need four pounds of leaves, so attempted quite unsuccessfully to separate them. Unfortunately, the leaf strips were enormous and all folded together, so my efforts in trying to avoid waste ended up creating something worse. The leaves began to split, making them useless for the next shopper’s tamales.
Thankfully, my first attempt at tamales was a success thanks to the help of a very good friend. Between the two of us, influence from a few good recipes, and a make-shift steamer, a few split banana leaves caused very few problems.