Food I will miss – Tamales

Two months left before leaving for Belgium. Two months left enjoying the native (though polluted) air and food, food, food. Home-cooked meals, Jollibee’s Chickenjoy, suman and other kakanin (sticky rice-based snacks).

If there’s one thing I will miss a lot when I leave home, it’s the kakanin. So I might as well write for my first post about a specific kakanin—a little-known treat called tamal (pl. tamales).

Tamales!

A Mexican-Pinoy connection?
I guess you’re all familiar with the word tamales (i.e., as used in the expression “hot tamales!”). Mexican in origin, tamal is a savory dish made from cornmeal stuffed with (usually) meat and spices, wrapped with corn husk then steamed until firm.

The Pinoy version of the tamal, however, uses ground rice and coconut milk instead of cornmeal and is wrapped in banana leaves. For the stuffing, it varies from province to province—from plain or “flat” (i.e., no stuffing) to literally bursting with all kinds of meats.

The particular variety of tamal I prefer is from my mother’s hometown, Zamboanga City. Filipino old-timers claim that the Zamboangeño version is closest to the original Mexican tamal in taste. Not surprising—Zamboanga after all used to be a Spanish garrison town in the Southern Philippines and still has (with much effort despite the bombings and terrorist attacks) preserved its Hispanic character. This one, though, is stuffed with glass noodles (vermicelli or bean) cooked as camaron rebosado (i.e., with sautéed shrimp and seasonings, plus a hint of chili, if lucky).

Tamal cross-section

As was stated before, this version of tamal is closest to the original Mexican in taste, but the ingredients are very much local. Vermicelli noodles are commonly used in Chinese-Filipino cooking (sotanghon, anyone?) while fresh shrimps (and other seafoods) are most abundant (and best tasting, IMHO) in Zamboanga.

In other words, we have a fusion dish in this post—local ingredients gone Mexican. Not that spicy, though, and no beans.

How to eat (but not to make)
It’s easy—if it’s freshly made, simply unwrap its banana leaf cover and take a bite. Its texture is creamy-soft and not so sticky because of the coconut milk used to form the rice dough—coconut milk, when heated, releases its oil which lubricates the dough and enhances the flavor of the stuffing, which permeates through the rice-oil matrix. Or dough.

[A word of warning: this tamal spoils easily in Philippine “room temperature” (which averages at roughly 30 deg C) due to the coconut milk. If stored properly in the refrigerator, it can last for 4-5 days—just steam a bundle for 3 minutes before eating.]

How this snack is made is something I do not exactly know. According to Zamboangeños like my mom and relatives, tamales are closely-guarded family recipes which are handed down from generation to generation (our family doesn’t know how to make them, sadly). And the art of making these tasty (and un-sweet) kakanin is slowly dying out. The batch of tamales I got in Zamboanga last May was from the same market stall my mom and aunts bought theirs when they were young and single. So much for continuity.

A personal memory of my roots
When I get homesick, I will remember the last time I ate tamales, the tamales I know, that my family knows, that everybody young and old knows. Because by remembering the taste, I can remember my history. Adobo may be a pan-Pinoy dish (which I will make when I am already there in Belgium, and another subject I will write about two months from now) that I can identify with, but the tamal is a personal stamp of my identity, a salute to my regional roots, of mixed indigenous and Hispanic cultures. Which is essentially Pinoy, after all.

Sources
For the Mexican tamales:
http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/tamales.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamale

~oui

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