Friday, December 25, 2009

A Meal to Remember: Christmas Tamales (de Guatemala)

Antigua, Guatemala
December 2006

I found while living in Honduras, very few things inspired two whole days of labor in such a hot lazy country. The tamale is one. Hondurans made my mouth water with the promise of the tamale, an apparently laborious tradition, reserved for the festive weeks leading up to Christmas and into the New Year. Questioning friends in La Ceiba only resulted in longing looks and a gurgling stomach; they were all too busy to cook, but promised me if I stopped by their homes on Christmas, I would be rewarded with the revered tamale. Sadly, Carter and I left for Guatemala before any pots were put on the stove. I was devastated - I might have to wait a whole year before experiencing Honduras’ most delicious culinary treat.

After crossing into Guatemala, we were easily distracted from our tamale woes. The rambling cobble stone streets of Antigua took us from one picturesque earthquake mangled ruin to another, spit us out into palm-shaded city plazas, which in turn lead us to explore various churches, a monastery built in the 1500’s, and endless hip boutiques. A deeper layer of charm and intrigue hides behind the brightly colored concrete walls lining the streets. Peer through a beautifully crafted wrought-iron door and find a spacious courtyard, sometimes the size of a city block, laid out in front of you. We were delighted to find that café culture has taken hold here; it felt so European after living in Honduras. Sitting in beautiful cafés carved into the Spanish ruins situated around tranquil fountains, enjoying delicious dark coffee and rich decadent black forest cake (Carter’s breakfast one day), I couldn’t help but daydream of my Spanish hacienda just outside of town, and my fabulous farm with happy delicious animals. I was in heaven.

In the evenings, a whole new life erupted. The central plaza was ablaze with Christmas lights and practically vibrating with reggaeton Christmas tunes. People gathered in the streets parading lanterns and statues. Groups of adults and kids carried statues of Mary and Joseph from house to house searching for lodging for the night. We slid alongside one merry entourage to ask where these plaster deities were being taken. Amidst the chaos of children high on sugar and the constant boombastic crackling of firecrackers, the basic premise of The Procession of Mary and Joseph was explained to us. Known as las posada, from December 15 until Christmas Eve the little parades fill the streets each night looking for someone to host Mary and Joseph until the next evening. When they find a family who will take them, a celebration ensues. And what do they eat to celebrate?!…. The Christmas Tamale! Oh joy! Merry Christmas to me! The tamale was being consumed all over Antigua.

The procession was growing as we went from house to house. I began to develop a bit of anxiety- if our numbers grew much more, would there be enough tamales for everyone, or more specifically, me? And then it happened: Huge carved double wooden doors were opened and the procession was welcomed into a modest family courtyard surrounded by an unassuming brightly painted coral wall. There they were, piled high, and steaming away in their tea green banana leaves: the two day tamale.

A roly-poly lady with a bright smile handed over the holiday delicacy. Steaming in my hands, I unwrapped my present, then using the banana leaf and my hand as a plate, I dug in to the delight of our host. It was perfect!! Over a twenty-four hour period, the hominy is boiled with cal or lime, husked, then boiled again and transformed from an indigestible dried, starchy kernel the size and shape of candy corn into creamy masa. Once completely puréed, a light airy consistency is achieved; so smooth, it is pudding-like. The masa is wrapped around tender braised pork, colored red by chilies and achiote. Then it is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The banana leaves impart a subtle smoky, gamey flavor that is complimented by a traditional beverage of whole plumped-up dates and raisins, shredded carrot, plantain, pineapple, papaya, bits of orange and fresh shredded coconut swimming around in a sweet viscous liquid served warm on the side.

Crashing holiday traditions is fun!!

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