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Tamales Salvadorenos

Easy Recipe for Making Tamales Salvadorenos - Chicken Tamales.

New Year's Eve is upon us, and in Latin households, that means it's time for tamales!!  Tamales are a special treat generally reserved for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, (which is Christmas for Latin families), or New Year's Eve.   If you have ever eaten a tamale, you probably thought two things:  One, they are delicious, and two, you would never be able to make them!  

Immediately upon meeting my husband, I was introduced to the wonderful world of tamales.  It was definitely a "love at first bite" type of experience, (love at first sight too of course, love you sweetie).  Whether they were chicken tamales, tamales pisques, or sweet corn tamales, I loved them all.  I soon began trying to make tamales myself, and it took four years to get the "stamp of approval" from my picky husband.

Here are some things you should know about a tamale before attempting to make one for yourself.  First, every Latin country has their own twist on the tamale.  Second, different people have different methods of making tamales that are unrelated to where they may be from.  For example, some people prefer to use corn husks to wrap a tamale, while other people prefer to use banana leaves and/or aluminum foil.  Some people prefer pork fillings, while others prefer to put entire parts of chicken, including the bone, inside of them.  Some people like to make the tamale masa, or dough, thicker and more grainy, similar to corn grits, while others prefer the taste of very moist and saturated masa.   I have eaten most of the varieties I listed above and I honestly think that all these varieties are yummy.  However, because my husband is from El Salvador, the tamales that I have been taught to make are very characteristic of tamales that one would find in El Salvador.  

So what are the characteristics of a Salvadoran tamale?  Chicken!  Tamales Salvadorenos is synonymous with chicken tamales.  Generally shredded chicken is used, not chicken with the bone on it.  Salvadorenas like to put chickpea beans, (also called garbanzo beans), pieces of  hard boiled egg, sauteed green beans, and/or olives  and capers in their chicken tamales also.

Another characteristic of a Salvadoran chicken tamale is that it has very moist masa dough.  The highly saturated dough is achieved by using tortilla flour ("Harina de Maiz"), not tamale flour ("Masa Instantainea de Maiz para Hacer Tamales"), and by adding lots of chicken broth, or water if you don't have it, to saturate the flour.

Salvadoran chicken tamales are also wrapped in banana leaves, not dry corn husks, and then covered with aluminum foil.  The banana leaves add to the moistness of a Salvadoran tamale.  Tamales pisques are also wrapped in banana leaves and are made with masa that has re-fried beans in the center.   These tamales are generally drier, saltier, and thicker than meat tamales.  Salvadoran sweet corn tamales are wrapped in fresh green corn husks and covered in foil and made out of ground up white corn kernels and corn meal flour.

Today I made the Salvadoran chicken tamale.  To ensure your tamales come out perfectly, try to follow the directions exactly as stated below. 

This recipe will makes about 12-18 tamales.

Chicken Tamales, El Salvador Syle:

Ingredients & Supplies:
To Make the Masa:
  • 2 cups of tortilla flour, harina de maiz - I like the "masa-brosa" brand
  • 7 cups of chicken broth (or cold water if you don't have it)
  • 1/2 cup of corn oil
  • 2 Maggi chicken flavor bouillon tablets ("caldo a pollo", see picture on right)
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube, by "Herb ox" (see picture on right) 
  • 2 Tbsp. of cumin
  • 1 Tbsp. of black pepper

To Make the Chicken Filling:
  • 2 chicken breasts with bone, skin and all
To Make the Salsa Roja:
  • 1 can of tomato paste
  • 2-3 red tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1 dried red chile
  • 1/2 green bell pepper
  • 2 bay leafs
  • cilantro
Other Supplies and Fillings:
  • Large roll of aluminum foil
  • Pack of banana leaves
  • Tamale steamer or pasta pot
  • 2 cups of green beans, boiled and then sauteed
  • 4-5 eggs, hard boiled and sliced into chunks like you would for egg salad
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained.

-Boil the 2 chicken breasts in salted water for half an hour.
-When time is up, place chicken breasts in a new clean bowl and save the broth they were cooked in.
-Now make the red sauce by combining all ingredients listed for sauce in a blender.
-Pour red sauce in a saucepan and heat on medium-low, stirring occasionally until it becomes thick, then turn on.
-Place the boiled chicken breasts in sauce to marinate and soak up flavor and leave the pot on the turned off burner to continue to marinate.
-Now begin making the masa dough.
-Mix masa and water well, using your hands to break up any clumps in the flour.
-Once completely mixed, add in corn oil, Maggi chicken seasoning cubes, and all spices.
-Turn heat to medium-low and begin stirring mixture with a large wooden spoon.
-Try to stir the mixture every few seconds in the beginning, and then every few minutes once its hot, as the masa can start to clump up easily on the bottom of the pot.
-Continue heating and stirring masa mixture for about 15-20 minutes.  You want to see mixture begin to thicken and coat the back of the spoon.
-Once mixture begins to look thick enough to stay in one place when placed on a banana leaf, turn off heat and let pot sit on burner to continue to thicken and cook.
-Now remove the chicken from the red sauce and shred it, removing all bones, and place in a new bowl.
-Fill up your pasta pot or tamale steamer with hot water and placed it on high heat so that water will be boiling and filling the pot with steam by the time you are finished assembling your tamales
-Now begin to assemble your banana leaves. 
To assemble the tamales:
  • First cut all your banana leaves into small squares - see pictures below to get better ideas of size, its about 5 inches by 5 inches.  Banana leaves come very big and you do not need such large leaves to wrap your tamale dough.
  • Now tear off about 15-20 medium sized aluminum foil squares.
  • Next, take two small banana leaf squares, place both of them onto an aluminum foil square, and lay the edge of one banana leaf slightly over the other one so that they overlap.  To speed things up, I actually only use one big leaf.
  • Now take two large wooden spoonfuls of masa, (probably about 4-5 regular sized spoonfuls) and place it into the center of the leaves right where they overlap each other.
  • Next add one spoonful of red sauce to the masa dough.
  • Place a few pieces of shredded chicken into the sauce.
  • Now add any other extra fillings you would like such as egg, green beans, olives, etc.
  • Now take one side of the leaf and roll it over the masa dough, and continue rolling so that the mix is completely covered by the leaf.
  • Now take one side of the aluminum foil and roll it over the banana leaf.
  • Continue rolling the aluminum foil completely over the banana leaf all the way until it reaches the other side of the aluminum foil, and make sure to hold it tightly by its edges as you roll it up so that your tamale will be wrapped tightly inside.
  • Now fold the edges of the foil on both ends to act as a seal, and place the tamale inside of the tamale steamer or pasta pot so that it is lying against the wall of the pot - see pictures below to see what I mean.
  • Continue to repeat these steps until you have used up all your tamale masa.
Cooking & Cooling the Tamales:
  • Place lid on the pot and cook the tamales on medium-high for about 45 minutes, making sure to add more water to bottom of pot if needed as it cooks.  After 45 minutes, turn off heat and leave tamales inside to continue cooking in the steam for about another half hour.  
  • After a half an hour, remove the tamales and place on a plate and stick in the fridge.  They will need to cool completely to room temperature before eating them so that they can harden.  If you try to eat them right after taking them out of the pot, they will look runny like they have not cooked.  This is normal, they will harden correctly as they cool.
Buen Provecho! 
Here are some pictures of the tamale making process:



    Kimby said...

    I love tamales and your recipe sounds delicious! Thank you for all of the explanations about techniques, culture variations, masa differences, fillings, etc. -- much appreciated. Happy New Year!

    Peggy said...

    Your tamales sound delicious! And if they're husband-approved, you know they gotta be good =)

    Anonymous said...

    Hola cipota!
    I just made some salpores de arroz and they are soo good! So far the best recipe ever! I am argentinian married to a salvadorean and I am so thankful for these resources ( like your blog) so easy and helpful! I can't wait to make these tamales! Thank u for being a blessing n encouragement! :)

    Unknown said...

    Hi Cipota!
    One of my favorite hispanic foods is tamales de elote. What do I need to make that? I'm assuming I would still follow your tamale masa steps, right?

    Lawrence M. Ladutke said...

    No bones? Are you kidding? Every tamale I ate in El Salvador (except tamales de elote, of course) had chicken bones in it.

    Anonymous said...

    la masa sometimes starts to stick at the bottom but to prevent it from sticking too much you could add a whole onion, sometimes it doesn't sstick at all!

    KitchenGirlz said...

    I made these last year from your recipe and my husband loved them! I am back again because to make the Tamales for Navidad :)

    KitchenGirlz said...

    Back again for more tamales! Feliz Navidad :)

    Alexandra A. said...

    2nd time following your recepie and they are right on point! Thank you for helping our next generation pass on our Salvadoran traditions. Many blessings to you and your family for sharing your wisdom.

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