It's Christmas Eve, and many Latinos will celebrate the holiday tonight by unwrapping a delicious little present: tamales.
At its essence, a tamale consists of masa (a type of starchy corn dough) that's been wrapped in leaves, then steamed or boiled. Some come bundled in corn husks, others in plantain, banana or mashan leaves. Some are sweetened with molasses, others spiced with mole. Some are plain, others filled with meats or vegetables.
Indeed, Latin America has hundreds of interpretations of the tamal (that's the proper singular, though Americans use tamale). Tamales vary not just by country but often by region. In Mexico alone, "we have over 200 tamales," says Iliana de la Vega, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, who is documenting Latin American foodways.
So whose version is best? That's a question likely to elicit a fiercely partisan response.
"Do you want me to get into trouble with my wife? Is that what you're looking for?" my colleague, NPR senior editor for diversity Luis Clemens, replies when I pose the question to him.
Clemens, you see, is Cuban-American — and Cubans like their tamales with bits of pork mixed into the masa. His wife is Mexican — she favors the banana-leaf wrapped, chili-and-chocolate-mole tamales of Oaxaca. In the interest of preserving their marital bliss, I drop my line of inquiry.
Tamales require hours of production. Often friends and families will gather for tamaladas, organizing themselves into efficient assembly lines to move the little packages along. All that work helps explain why, in many Latin countries, they've long been a special treat synonymous with the holidays.
"For me, tamales have to be like my grandmother made them," says Felix Contreras, a Mexican-American arts desk producer and co-host of NPR's AltLatino.
Contreras, like many Latinos, is unabashedly devoted to the taste he grew up with, a spicy pork recipe with roots in the Southwest.
"Hmm? How do I put this diplomatically?" Contreras says, choosing his words carefully. "When I've tasted some other cultures' tamales, I guess because I'm used to what I'm used to, it was a little too off-the-beaten path for me."
Trust me, I understand the pride and prejudice that tamales can engender. Recently, I had to hold myself from snarling back at a commenter on a blog post who called Guatemalan tamales "lousy." (Yup, I'm Guatemalan.) Many years ago, I briefly considered breaking off relations with a dear Mexican-American friend after she dismissed the bite of Guatemalan-style tamale I offered her with a sour grimace. Perhaps she hadn't realized that we Guatemalans put our tamales on a green-leaf-lined pedestal.
Like their Mexican counterparts, Guatemalan tamales come in many variations. But the archetypal Guatemalan tamale is made with creamy smooth masa that's cooked prior to boiling, and stuffed with chicken or pork in a red tomato sauce, with bell peppers, olives and capers. Each is savored slowly as the true luxury that it is — scooping more than one tamale onto your plate at a time is considered bad form.
The taste is amazing – but it's also quite a departure from that of the Mexican-style, cornhusk-wrapped concoctions that are most frequently encountered in the U.S. Which is why I decided to forgive my friend for her desecration of the dish. After all, taste preferences are formed early, and in this country, it is Mexican tamales whose roots run broadest and deepest.
This Christmas Eve morning, my sisters and I will get dozens of tamales from a Guatemalan immigrant who makes them for us in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. None of us have time – or frankly, the know-how – to craft the savory tamales that remind us of our childhood in Guatemala City. So we've sought out those who can recreate the taste of home.
And that, ultimately, is the secret ingredient inside each tamale: tradition and memory.