Pork Part 2: Tamales

I’m probably about the worst person in the world to be writing about making tamales. I’ve never had one prepared by anyone other than Marv or myself that I’ve liked. Seems like every time I get them made by someone else, they’re either too wet, too dry, lacking flavor or just generally lackluster.

And yet, when Marv started making them at home several years ago, I loved them. Of course, Marv was playing with making sauces from smoked and dried chilies. He’s insanely good at these things. (He is also a lasagna genius. Two excellent reasons to marry a person, in my opinion.) The only problem is that once he figures out how to do something really well, he stops. It’s very unfortunate. But there’s not challenge for him, so he’s just done.

Then I have to take over. Oh well. I decided to do a little research. Turns out tamales aren’t even called that, they’re tamals, but we’ll go with it. The gist is they’re little sandwiches. Fillings can change, be different kinds of meat or veg, or they can go sweet filled with nuts and raisins. (I’m psyched to try this.) Seems war parties used to carry them a road food. I’ll have to remember this for our next road trip. (Hopefully, this won’t make me attack statues of war heroes. Oh, me and my warmongering ways.)

Anyhoo. Back to the tragic loss of my tamale maker. I am not he. I don’t feel the need to grind up re-hydrated chiles and whatnot. I opted for chile gravy more or less making a roux with powdered spices instead. Then I just cooked the meat over low heat for a couple of hours until it was falling apart. Rather than actually pulling it apart, I then chopped it up with a cleaver.

The only other thing that I do that may (or may not) raise eyebrows is that I really like the taste that comes from steaming the tamales in banana leaves rather than corn husks. They seem a bit brighter in flavor for some reason. Banana leaves are super cheap and you can get them frozen at Asian markets.

Pork Tamales


2 T butter
4lbs (about) pork shoulder, (or beef, if you prefer) cut into 1″ cubes

3 T ancho powder
3 T brown sugar or honey
2 T chipotle powder
1 T cumin powder
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
salt to taste

Heat butter over high heat and heat until melted. Toss the pork in flour (until coated but not clumped) and cook in the hot oil until browned on most sides.

Reduce heat to low. Throw in ancho powder, chipotle powder, cumin and cinnamon and toss to coat. Add in broth and brown sugar. Tightly cover with lid and simmer for an hour or two, checking and stirring occasionally. Pork is done when it’s very tender.

When pork is done, transfer it from the pot to a cutting board and chop up into little bitty pieces with a cleaver. Have fun.

While chopping up meat, simmer gravy until quite thick. Mix the meat back in and set aside.

Masa Batter

1 c chilled lard or vegetable shortening
2 t baking powder
4 c coarse-ground masa for tamales
3 c chicken broth
2 – 4 t salt

Whip the lard with the baking powder. Add in masa in slowly, one cup at a time. When masa is is mixed in add in chicken broth 1/2 c at a time. The texture you’re going for is a thick spreadable paste. Add in salt 1t at a time and taste (sorry about it being raw and whatnot – but broths have different salt levels, so you do need to check) until it tastes the right amount of salty for you.


Cut banana leaves into 5″ pieces. And others into 1/2″ strips for tying. Smear masa in a rectangle shape, leaving 2″ on top and bottom and 1″ (or more) on the sides. Fill with meat mixture in a line from top to bottom at the center of the masa. Fold in sides. Fold over top and bottom. Tie with small tie.

Continue until done.

Steam for 1 – 2 hours, testing periodically for doneness. They’re done when they taste done. (I know that’s no help, but really, that’s the best way to tell.)

Serve with fixins.


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