Pork tamales with prickly pear & tequila salsa

Pork tamales with prickly pear & tequila salsa

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!

Pork tamales recipe

Pork tamales recipe

Prickly pear & tequila salsa

Pork tamales recipe

pork tamales with prickly pear & tequila salsa

Makes about 15



  • 800 g pork neck
  • 2 tbsp achiote paste*
  • 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1½ tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp whole pimento
  • 200 ml shao hsing wine, or sherry
  • 1 tbsp maltose
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 170°C. Place the piece of pork into a clay pot or oven-proof baking dish with lid.

Combine remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir well to dissolve the maltose and honey. The maltose will clump so pop it all in the microwave for 20 seconds to slightly warm the mixture. Stir well and pour over the pork. If there’s not enough of the mix to just cover the pork, add a little water. Put the lid on and cook in the oven for 4 hrs, turning once or twice during cooking.
Remove from the oven and take the meat from the pot, set aside and keep the juices. Remove and discard the pimento. Tear the meat apart with two forks and set aside. Add a little of the juices to keep the meat moist but not too soggy.
Strain ½ cup of the juices and set aside.
*Achiote is a paste made using ground annato seeds, a bunch of spices and a liquid such as Seville orange juice or vinegar. Annato is native to Central and South America and has a deep burnt orange colour and sweet, nutty and peppery flavour. I picked up my paste from my local spice providore, the Fiji Market. You can also make it using my recipe here.

masa mix:

  • 15 dried corn husks*
  • 4 cups masa harina*
  • 1 cup shortening (I used duck fat)
  • 1½ cups cumin seeds, dry pan- toasted and lightly crushed
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • ½ cup strained juiced from the pork, mixed with ½ cup water

Place the corn husks in a large bowl and pour in enough hot water to cover. Place a plate on top to keep them submerged. Allow to rehydrate for 1 hour. Drain well and dry each husk with a towel.
In a large mixing bowl rub the shortening with the masa harina until coarse. Using your fingers mix in the cumin, salt and chilli powder. Gradually add the liquid and mix with your fingers until a soft, dry and pliable dough forms. A bit like a cookie mix. You may not need all the liquid, you may need more. It depends on the flour mix.
Take some of the masa dough and spread it onto the corn husk about 2 cm from the edges. It needs to be about 4 mm thick. Drop about 1½ tablespoons of the shredded pork into the centre of each dough disc and use the dough to encase the meat all the way around. A bit like rolling a cigar.
Firmly, but not too tightly roll the husk into a cigar shape and fold the ends in about 2½ cm to seal. Tie with strips of the corn husk and place vertically into a steamer. Steam for 1½ hours.
Any left over pork can be put back into the fridge for another tasty treat.

*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.

prickly pear & tequila salsa:

  • 3 prickly pears (Indian figs)*
  • 2 tsp tequila
  • Zest of 1 lime and juice from ½ of it
  • 2 tsp jaggery
  • 1 tsp coriander leaves, chopped

*I picked up mine at Harris Farm Markets in Broadway, Sydney.

Take great care in preparing the prickly peas as the tiny spikes can easily lodge into your fingers. Use gloves or tongs and make absolutely no contact with them. Cut the ends off and remove the skin using a paring knife. Discard the skin and rinse the chopping board really well. Rinse the inner flesh of the pear as well, incase a few stray spikes are still on there somewhere. Dice the flesh and set aside.

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.

To serve the tamales simply pile onto a platter and tear into them while fresh and hot from the steamer. Scoop some of the salsa and enjoy.
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