Salvadoran cuisine is a traditional cuisine that consists of food from Native American cuisine, indigenous Lenca, Pipil and European Spanish peoples. Many of the dishes are made with maize (corn), like tamales pisques.
When we hear tamale, we automatically connect it with Mexico. However, many of the Latin American countries all have their own variety of tamales.
What are tamales pisques?
Tamal pisque comes from El Salvador, but it is also popular in Honduras. Tamales pisques are made with seasoned corn masa that is mixed with refried beans, and the combination is then neatly wrapped in plantain leaves. The tamales are then steamed, and the dish is ready for consumption after it has cooled down a bit.
What is the origin of tamales?
The tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. The preparation of tamales is likely to have spread from the indigenous culture in Mexico and Guatemala to the rest of Latin America. According to archaeologists Karl Taube, William Saturn and David Stuart, tamales may date from the year 100 AD.
What is a tamale?
A tamale (Spanish: tamal, meaning “wrapped” comes from the Nahuatl languages: tamalli) is a traditional dish made of masa or dough (starchy, and usually corn-based), which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The wrapping can either be discarded prior to eating, or be used as a plate and eaten from within. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.
The Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the Olmec and Toltec before them, used tamales as easily portable food, for hunting trips, and for traveling large distances, as well as supporting their armies. Tamales were also considered sacred as they are the food of the gods. Aztec, Maya, Olmeca, and Tolteca all considered themselves to be people of corn and so tamales played a large part in their rituals and festivals.
One of the most significant rituals for the Aztecs was the feast of Atamalcualiztli (eating of water tamales). This ritual, held every eight years for a whole week, was done by eating tamales without any seasoning, spices, or filling which allowed the maize freedom from being overworked in the usual tamale cooking methods.
How to make tamales
In Mexico and El Salvador, tamales begin with a dough made from nixtamalized corn (hominy), called masa, or a masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard or vegetable shortening. Tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before being steamed, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are usually steamed until firm.
Tamale-making is a ritual that has been part of the Latin American culture since pre-Hispanic times, when special fillings and forms were designated for each specific festival or life event. Today, tamales are typically filled with meats, cheese or vegetables, especially chilies. Preparation is complex, time-consuming and an excellent example of Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the women. Tamales are a favorite comfort food in El Salvador, eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied with tomato sauce or curtido – a fermented cabbage relish that is a staple of Salvadoran cuisine. Street vendors can be seen serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras) or ollas.
Salvadorian tamales are made in banana or plantain leaves, and the masa (corn meal) is often seasoned with chicken stock or bouillon.
In Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, tamales without filling are served as the bread or starch portion of a meal.
Tamales around Latin America
Guatemalan cuisine is known in particular for its hundreds of varieties of tamales; some popular ones include tamales de gallina (chicken), tamales dulces (sweet) or tamales negros (black tamales), and tamales de elote (in Costa Rica, this name can also refer to a type of corn pastry). In Guatemala, a variety of tamales is called tamales colorados, which have chicken or pork filling and a tomato-based sauce (recado), hence the colorado, which means “to blush”. Tamales colorados may also contain olives, red bell pepper, prunes or raisins, capers, and almonds.
In Belize, the tamale is a staple where it is also known by the Spanish name bollo or dukunu, a green corn tamale. Nicaragua has a large form known as nacatamales. Unlike other tamale recipes, the meat is added raw and cooked in the dough.
Tamales in Costa Rica vary according to region and season. One sort of tamales, tamales mudos (mute tamales) is a tamale with no filling. Sweet tamales are popular during Holy Week. Tamales can be bought year-round, but the best tamales are, of course, homemade and not store-bought. It is a Christmas tradition in many families to gather and make dozens of tamales. They are wrapped in banana or plantain leaves, and then two are tied together with twine or string to keep water from seeping into the leaves. This pair is called a piña. Tamales are typically served on the inner leaf wrapping with Salsa Lizano, a locally prepared Worcestershire-type sauce.
One version of tamales, called humita, is found in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. It can be either savory or sweet. Sweet ones have raisins, vanilla, oil, and sugar; salty ones can be filled with cheese (queso fresco) or chicken.
In Trinidad and Tobago, it is called a pastelle and is associated almost entirely with Christmas. Raisins and capers along with other seasonings are added to the meat filling. The entire thing is wrapped in a banana leaf, bound with twine and steamed. The sweet version is called paime (pronounced pay-mee).
As any casual observer of the culinary world knows, tamales are from an entirely different culture and are one of the most time-consuming and difficult staples to master.
Wherever you decide to try tamales, in El Salvador it is a delicious tradition of their country that is wrapped in banana leaves, containing a spoonful of finely puréed beans that sinks into the masa to create a marbled effect. The flavor is mild, and the texture is smooth and silky and it is every vegetarian dream!
Gather around the family and enjoy a batch of these delicious tamales pisques.
- 2 lb masa harina (nixtmalized maize flour)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 onion , quartered
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 green bell peppers (bull’s horn), seeded and diced
- 1 tablespoon vegetable bouillon powder (or chicken bouillon powder)
- 2 cups water (more or less)
- 2 lb red beans , cooked
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 onion , quartered
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tomato , peeled, seeded, cut into 4
- ½ cup boiling water
- Banana leaves , cut into 30 squares of 10 inches
- In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
- Sauté the onion, garlic and tomatoes for 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the red kidney beans, salt, pepper and fry over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, stirring very regularly.
- Pour all this preparation, with the oil, in a blender. Add the boiling water and blend until getting a thick consistency, but not too firm. If necessary, add a little boiling water. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat.
- Sauté the onion, garlic and green bell peppers for 10 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Pour all this preparation, with the oil, into a blender.
- Add ½ cup of water and blend until obtaining a velvety liquid.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the masa harina.
- Add the salt and chicken bouillon powder.
- Add the previously mixed preparation and start kneading.
- Gradually add the remaining water and knead in obtain a light dough (not solid).
- If necessary, add a little water or a little flour to obtain the desired consistency.
- Boil a large amount of water in a large pot.
- Using a pair of pliers, take each leaf and immerse each of them in boiling water for 5 seconds, one at a time.
- Drain and dry with a cloth.
- On a sheet of parchment paper, place a banana leaf in its center.
- In the center of the banana leaf, place about two tablespoons of dough and flatten the dough until forming a circle.
- Place 2 teaspoons of red bean purée in the center of the dough.
- Using the parchment paper, close the tamale giving it a rectangular or square shape. Tie the tamales with the cooking twine.
- Repeat until the dough is used up.
- Place the tamales in a large Dutch oven.
- Cover them with boiling water.
- Cook covered over low-medium heat for 1h30.
- If necessary, add boiling water during cooking.