When we agreed on chocolate as the theme of the week, I obviously immediately thought of executing an unusual recipe. And what could be more unusual than using chocolate in a… savory recipe!
Chocolate is extracted from the cocoa tree. This tree has been cultivated for over 3000 years by the civilizations of the Central American region called Mesoamerica. Originally, chocolate was mainly used in hot drinks such as xocoatl whose contemporary version is champurrado.
Guatemalan cuisine is based on Mayan cuisine with heavy use of corn, chilis and beans. A tamal (plural tamales) is a typical dish from the Central American region. Although there are hundreds of versions, tamales share common basic ingredients and characteristics: masa is used along with meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, nuts or other sauces. They are wrapped in an envelope (usually corn husks, banana leaves, etc.) and are steamed. Masa is dried corn flour (hominy or nixtamal). This is the same flour that I recently used to prepare my pupusas from El Salvador as well as my fish tacos.
Tamales date from 8000 BC. They were mainly prepared as “portable” meals that could easily be carried by warriors, hunters and travelers.
The best known tamales are the Mexican ones that are wrapped in corn husk. Guatemalan cuisine is known for its hundreds of varieties of tamales. Tamales de gallina (chicken), tamales dulces (sweet), tamales colorado (with tomato and chicken or pork).
Tamales negros like many versions of tamales are often prepared during the Christmas season. Tamales negros (black tamales) get their name from the dark mole sauce that is used in this recipe. Mole sauce, which is well known in this region is prepared with chocolate, our star ingredient of the week.
It is once again our maid Cecilia who helped me in the preparation and execution of this recipe. Cecilia is originally from Mexico but has family in Guatemala. She knew a few versions of these tamales negros, including one with peas that I have not used my recipe.
Unlike Mexican tamales which are wrapped in corn husk, tamales negros are wrapped in banana leaves. When I told Cecilia that I would prepare tamales negros, she immediately offered to bring me fresh banana leaves. She also helped me prepare the leaves to use them. Indeed, in order to make them flexible enough so they do not break when wrapping tamales, it is essential to follow her technique. First, hover each side of the leaves over an open flame (gas range) for a few seconds, and then rinse them under water or clean them with a damp towler. This ensures that the leaves are soft and obviously clean!
She also showed me how to wrap the tamales. So this week, her hands are featured in the preparation photos for this dish.
Yes, I admit, you can’t be in a hurry when you prepare tamales. There are quite a few steps including the preparation of the mole sauce, the masa, the chicken (to cook in mole sauce), the tamales assembly, and finally the steaming of these tamales.
But what about the taste? I had already tasted mole sauce but it didn’t really create a lasting memory… which is exactly why I took on the challenge to change my mind about this. Against all odds, I must say that these tamales were excellent. The sauce, although sweet is spiced up with the chili peppers as well as the presence of prunes, raisins and olives which give these tamales a unique taste that you will not find anywhere else.
We obviously think of tamales at first bite with the very particular flavor of masa. I tasted the masa before it was steamed inside the tamales and I must say that the banana leaves allow for a perfect steaming but also give an additional special flavor and creamy texture to the masa, very different flavors and textures than before steaming.
I loved those tamales and my kids also liked them. My wife Anne had already told me she did not even want to taste them, not being a fan of the mole sauce herself… but after I insisted, she finally gave in and confessed that these tamales were “not that bad”. Coming from Anne, I take that as the ultimate compliment!
If you have time and need a new challenge in the kitchen, make your own tamales!
- 3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds , toasted
- 3 tablespoons sesame seeds , toasted
- 2 pasa chili peppers (or pasilla), toasted and seeded
- 1 guaque chili pepper , toasted and seeded (or other chili pepper)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ cup breadcrumbs , toasted
- 3 tomatoes (ripe), sliced
- 3 oz bittersweet chocolate , melted
- ½ cup water
- 1½ lb boneless chicken
- 1¾ lb masa harina
- 8 cups water
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 8 tablespoons shortening
- 16 leaves banana (or aluminum foil), about 12x12 in
- Raffia (or butcher's string), to close the tamales
- 16 small pitted prunes (1 per tamal)
- 32 raisins (2 per tamal)
- 32 pitted green olives (2 per tamal)
- Put all the sauce ingredients (except the chicken) in a blender and blend for a few minutes until obtaining a smooth sauce.
- Cook the chicken with the sauce in a covered pan over medium heat for 20 minutes.
- Remove chicken and shred or dice. Set the chicken and sauce aside.
- Mix the dough ingredients together and simmer in a saucepan over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring often, until the dough is thick and smooth. Add water if necessary.
- Set aside.
- Hover banana leaves over a flame for a few seconds on each side. Rinse them.
- In the center of each leaf, place a handful of masa and spread over a rectangle of 4x5 inches and 1 inch thick.
- Place prunes, raisins and olives.
- Pour 2 tablespoons of sauce and a few pieces of chicken.
- Fold the leaf toward the center, seal, then fold the other end.
- Tie the package with raffia (or string).
- Place tamales in a steamer. Steam over medium heat for at least an hour.
- To serve, unfold the leaf and cut the edges with scissors, leaving the central portion of the leaf intact.
- Optional: pour a little mole sauce on the tamale.