The corn husks and banana leaves are soaked. The masa filling is moist and ready. The slow-cooked meats, vibrantly colored salsas, and glistening dark mole await.
It’s time to steam the weekend tamales, at last. This ingenious ancient food — a bundle of husk-wrapped corn dough and stuffings descended through 9,000-plus years of culture dating to the pre-Hispanic era — is suddenly more relevant in Philadelphia than ever.
From South Philadelphia to Northern Liberties, guest chefs take their turns for tamalera duty for COVID-19 fund-raisers and pop-up sales to keep families going, and sons fill in for knowing mothers now separated by the pandemic.
“The stars are aligned for tamales right now,” says chef Ana Caballero of Lost Bread Co., who’s been hosting guest chefs from across the local Latino community for Proyecto Tamal, a weekly series from which the Saturday sales raise money for unemployed immigrant workers who are largely unable to access government assistance.
“We’re raising resources and awareness about a community that’s in a vulnerable situation right now. But celebrating their food culture is also empowering," says Caballero, 33, a High Street/Fork alum and Honduran American who grew up in the “tamale country” of Central America. "Plus, tamales refrigerate well and travel well. They’re the perfect quarantine food.”
While tacos remain a far more familiar favorite, tamale’s inherent virtues of adaptability, affordability, and durability are better suited to nourish during the pandemic, says Pati Jinich, the Mexican cookbook author and James Beard-winning host of Pati’s Mexican Table on PBS.
“Tamales are like the daily bread of Mexicans — as big as tacos there, but underappreciated in the U.S.,” she says. “They’re less easy to adapt into casual fast food, and more difficult to make. … But you have to eat tacos within 20 to 30 minutes. Tamales? You can take them on a journey.”
The tamale’s journey to its status as a coveted Philadelphia staple has been steady but relatively recent. It’s only been two decades since South Philadelphia began to see an influx of Mexican immigrants, a now-vibrant community that has helped revitalize the Italian Market with family-owned restaurants, bakeries, chamoyada shops, and markets. A warm pack of aromatic tamales (often with a chocolaty cup of warm champurrado atole) has become a ritual of weekend mornings south of Washington Avenue.
That ritual for many was interrupted for several weeks following the shutdown when South Philly’s busiest tamale kitchen, Tamalex (1163 S. 7th St.), closed out of caution and while the owners focused instead on raising money to distribute despensa care packages of essentials to members of their community. With the despensa program now up and running, however, co-owner David Piña said it was time to reopen, pay some bills, and fire up the tamale pots again. Even at partial speed last weekend, producing 800 each night — compared to 1,100-plus before the shutdown — that has returned a tremendous resource of $2 bundles of full-flavored sustenance to an appreciative audience.
“People kept calling us saying they miss tamales, and they’re excited to have it again,” says Piña.
A much smaller operation nearby, but another local favorite, is Mole Poblano (1144 S. 9th St.), a cozy BYOB on “Calle Nueve” launched in 2012 by brothers Pedro and Javier Ríos to give their parents — Ines Sandoval-Pérez and Pedro Ríos-Hernandez — a proper kitchen to produce the tamales and mole that had become legendary during their days as local street vendors.
The tamale torch there was recently passed to the next generation when Ines and Pedro returned to Mexico in January to care for their elder parents. The brothers and Javier’s wife, Micaela Aparicio, stepped in to make all the typical Poblano variations most common in South Philly, stuffed with chicken in salsa verde, pork in puya chile salsa roja, or rajas-style with jalapeño, Oaxaca cheese, tomato, and fresh epazote. Their birthright, a fluffy tamale marbled with a cocoa-dark mole that combines both family specialties into one beautiful bundle, remains one of Philadelphia’s most special foods. Nonetheless, it hasn’t been easy replicating the mother’s touch.
“It takes patience and I’m still learning,” says Javier, who’s getting a feel for the two-hour process of working the masa with lard and chicken broth before filling the meticulously prepared corn husks with Aparicio, who also used to make the tamales with Ines. “It takes me 10 hours to do what [my mother] did in eight.”
Brother Pedro then comes in at 5 a.m. each weekend morning to steam them fresh for several hours before customers arrive around 10 a.m., often to bring them home to their families after church.
The communal nature of tamales — both making them in groups and eating them together as a family — has no doubt been disrupted for many by the era of social distancing. But with his parents now so far away and unable to return during the crisis, Javier says, carrying on the family tradition also makes him feel more connected to his mom.
“Every time he makes a tamale now,” says Javier’s son, also named Javier, “he values his parents more.”
For chef Jennifer Zavala, who runs her Juana Tamale pop-up out of Underground Arts, making tamales is also about connecting to family roots. But it’s a heritage she says she never had a chance to fully grasp once her American mother and Mexican father divorced when she was 8, and she moved with her mom from Montana to Connecticut, where “I was the only Mexican, a dark-skinned girl who didn’t fit in.”
In addition, Zavala doesn’t speak Spanish well, so she says she hasn’t felt fully part of the Mexican community, either. And yet, a quest to connect with that part of her identity has driven her to explore “the most Mexican things I could make: mole and tamales.”
It’s a pursuit that has resulted in sustenance for her family and a business that’s produced more than 9,000 tamales over the last three years between what she’s made for concerts at Underground Arts and spontaneously sold out of the back of her pink and blue graffiti-covered van with “TAMALES” painted on the side.
Of course, Zavala, a lavishly tattooed former roadie chef, food trucker, Top Chef competitor, and cannabis activist, specializes in nontraditional flavors, from vegan smoked yam and kale tamales to her “Golden Slipper” stuffed with Italian sausage, potatoes, and peppers that’s an homage to the cultural melting pot of her neighborhood: “I make sure to represent South Philadelphia, always.”
Some purists might wince. But the tamale’s ability to adapt to different environments and reflect the creativity of its makers has been a key to its survival over the millennia.
“You can adapt a tamale to wherever you live in the world,” say Jinich, who notes the stunning variety within Mexico itself, from renditions in Oaxaca wrapped in banana leaves (as opposed to corn husks), versions with masa from plantains, and the giant table-sized ceremonial mucbipollo chicken tamales of the Yucatán cooked underground for the Day of the Dead.
That diversity of tamale traditions is on full display at Lost Bread’s Proyecto Tamal, where Caballero has sought out unemployed local cooks from across Latin America whom — with funding from donors to cover the cost of ingredients, including masa made from freshly nixtamalized Lancaster corn by Cadence restaurant — are able to take home at least $1,000 from the proceeds.
And so there have been rarities like Guatemalan bean tamales, pig’s head tamales lanquinero, and tamales stuffed with bone-in chicken from Olga Castillo, 33, a mother of three who came to Philadelphia after being extorted at gunpoint when leaving work one night from her job as a restaurant manager in Guatemala. It’s an episode for which she is still paying debt lenders.
For Castillo, who once also made tamales professionally in Guatemala, being able to proudly make these specialties for an appreciative new audience has also allowed her to rekindle a comforting taste of home, not to mention help with finances.
The opportunity to earn money while unemployed was also a draw for Sergio Mateo, 35, a Puebla native with two insatiably hungry Philadelphia-born sons who was laid off from his line cook job at Brü Craft & Wurst. But it also gave him the chance to reconnect by phone with his mother and grandmother back in Mexico, where women are traditionally the primary tamale cooks, and they shared some of the family’s tamale secrets — a pinch of cumin and cinnamon in the masa.