April 12, 2012

Tamales- Hecho Con el Amor

Tamale cart in Mexico City
More than 15 years ago, I made my first batch of tamales. My sister, who was working at Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, NM, had gifted me The Coyote Cafe Cookbook along with a pile of ingredients. I must have had tamales sometime before that, but I don't recall when or where; I like to think the book just opened to that section and tamales called to me. The process of making them and the resulting corn husk package just made me so darn happy.

Market stall selling Uchepos
in Morelia, Michoacan
Corundas in Pátzcuaro, Michoacan
A steaming tamalera full of
breakfast tamales

Fast forward 12 years. Living in Mexico, I 'rediscovered' tamales. In the mornings, women offer them from steaming tamaleras on street corners, even from the open front door of their homes; in Mexico City they're offered from shopping carts and tricycles, the tamalera swaddled in blankets on cooler days. This is grassroots commerce at its finest and most flavorful. In Oaxaca, chicken with rich black mole is wrapped in banana leaves; in Michoacán, corundas of masa blended with fresh corn are wrapped into tricornered packages of fresh corn leaves, and then there are uchepos, a steamed "dough" made very simply from the sweet corn in season and served with crema or natas (according to Diana Kennedy, comparable to clotted cream) Both are regional kin to the tamal.

Alicia's Tamales los Mayas- prepped for
San Francisco Street Food Festival Aug 2011
Alicia spreading masa with a
culinary student volunteer
It wasn't until I spent a week at La Cocina in San Francisco helping prep for the San Francisco Street Food Festival and stuffing hundreds upon hundreds of cornhusks with masa for Alicia Villanueva of Tamales Los Mayas that I realized what all those tamales had done to me (aside from making me gradually fatter). They spoke to the craftsperson I once was –a jeweler–and of my nurturing and domestic nature, not to mention my feelings toward Mexico, as my adopted home. Alicia is originally from Mazatlán, Sinaloa. She grew up making tamales with her mother and grandmother for fiestas, as many Mexican girls would. But for Alicia, it resonates more deeply. More than just preparing food for eating–it's her own desire to share her fondness for the flavours and cultural traditions, it is about connecting with community, and, above all, an expression of love.

Now living in the Bay Area with her husband and children, Alicia makes tamales to help sustain her family and to share her love of this traditional street food. For her and many other food entrepreneurs like her, the food business incubator La Cocina provides essential resources, from practical business planning to a commercial kitchen. As their client, Alicia was able to realize her dream of serving her tamales from a "traditional" tamale cart–that is, a cart that maintains that traditional cultural attitude, yet meet the food-safety and legal specs of a city like San Francisco. It was with the assistance of La Cocina that she was able to raise funds through Kickstarter to, well, kick-start the whole thing.

Alicia's Tamales los Mayas in Justin Herman Plaza
She now serves her tamales across from the Ferry Building (in Justin Herman Plaza), caters, and teaches workshops on making tamales. She's dedicated to her recipes, her traditions and her customers–and it shows. Her tamale cart is not about jumping on a trend–it's a pure reflection of her culture and her warm personality. If you're in San Francisco, look for her across from the Ferry Building (and if you're a foodie, you're sure to be making that a stop). Have a tamale, and revel in Alicia's warmth. As she says herself "My tamales are stuffed with love, and the best people are stuffed with my tamales."

That's how all the best food should be. 

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