The idea of food wrapped in parcels is just too hard to resist. Seafood cocooned in banana leaves, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, dolmades and anything that’s steamed, baked, fried or boiled is always a joy when it involves peeling back the layers to reveal a tasty core of ingredients.
This traditional Mexican dish is made up of cooked meat that’s torn and then wrapped in a thin dough, wrapped again in corn husks and steamed. It’s far from a quick meal as it requires slow-cooking the meat, soaking the corn husks and then a rather fiddly session of spreading and shaping dough – then rolling everything in the husks.
I didn’t follow a recipe for these particular tamales and instead got an idea of what went into the dough by looking at a few recipes online. Many of the online recipes had you just cooking the meat in water and nothing much else. Too plain for me so I chose a nice piece of pork neck and combined some Mexican flavourings with a couple of Chinese ingredients.
Initially I wanted to cook the pork with only Chinese flavours but when I found achiote paste at my local Fiji Market I changed that idea. To be honest, the recipe I came up with for the pork can be eaten as it is, with rice or torn into a sandwich or over soft tacos. The flavours are sensational. Juicy, spicy meat that melts in the mouth. Marinate the meat overnight if you wish, but it isn’t necessary.
I’ve seen prickly pears at a couple of fruit and veg stores lately and had the urge to buy a punnet to try at home. Seeing I was doing a Mexican dish I thought it’d be perfect to make a salsa to go with it. You know, being a cactus and all. Adding tequila and coriander was just a given. The flavour of prickly pear is slightly sweet, a little bland with a hint of frangipani. Well, these ones did anyway. There are a lot of small seeds in each pear so the texture isn’t exactly smooth.
My first attempt at making tamales was a good one despite not following a recipe. The ones I ate fresh from the steamer were soft and fluffy but I found that when I reheated any remaining ones the masa pastry had dried and become crumbly. The winning element was definitely the pork. You’ve seriously got to try the pork! On a final note, I used duck fat rather than the traditional shortening as it was staring at me from the fridge, waiting to be used. I had about 1 cup I kept from roasting a duck recently.
Cue the ranchera music!
Makes about 15
Preheat oven to 170°C. Place the piece of pork into a clay pot or oven-proof baking dish with lid.
*Masa harina is a finely ground flour made from corn that has been dried, cooked, dried and ground. The water in which it is cooked contains calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) and gives the flour a unique flavour. You can buy masa harina and dried corn husks from the Fiji Market or The Essential Ingredient, if you’re in Sydney. Elsewhere, jump online and do some research.
*I picked up mine at Harris Farm Markets in Broadway, Sydney.
In a separate small mixing bowl combine the remaining ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour this over the diced prickly pear, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until it’s time to eat.