Tamales, a New Mexican Tradition

••• Getty Images/Lisa Charles Watson

Luminarias may be a holiday tradition in Albuquerque, but tamales are a well known tradition too, and many New Mexican families find them to be an essential part of the holiday table.

Tamales (ta MAH lees), are meat and corn packages wrapped in corn husks and steamed until firm. Most tamales found in Albuquerque at holiday time are stuffed with pork and red chile, though other variations can be found.

Even vegetarian and vegan versions are popular. 

The most traditional recipes call for pork, but any meat stuffing will do. Beef, chicken and even chocolate tamales can be found at Albuquerque restaurants, cafes, food trucks and coolers carried by vendors. Be on the lookout for those cooler vendors, as they often have the best tasting tamales of all.

Tamales are labor intensive and can be intimidating to make, but there's a solution to that. Many New Mexican families have a tradition of getting together to make large batches that can be frozen and used throughout the year. Making tamales together like this at a tamalada (often headed by Abuelita, or Grandma) allows families to get together to catch up on news while creating food to share. 

Like green chile that's roasted and frozen when in season, tamales can be prepared in batches prior to the holidays and frozen for use throughout the year.

The ingredients are simple enough, but the construction requires a bit of effort. Using a corn husk as the outer wrapper, masa, a kind of white corn meal, is cooked and spread within the husk. The stuffing is spread on top of the masa, and the whole thing is rolled and placed in a steamer to cook.

Cook everything in stages, and if at all possible, have a tamalada so you don't have to do it on your own.

People will do anything if they get paid in tamales!


2½ pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large onion, halved
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 dried red chile pods
About 2 pounds of masa
At least 36 softened corn husks, plus 36 strips for tying


Soak the corn husks in a bowl of warm water overnight.

Put the pork in a Dutch oven with the onion, garlic, peppercorns and bay leaves. Season with the salt and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the meat is tender and cooked through, about two hours.

Using rubber gloves, remove the stems and seeds from the chile pods and place them in a pan with two cups of water. Let them simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, then remove them from the heat to cool. Put the chile water and chiles in a blender or food processor and pulse until smooth. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth. Add the leftover meat broth to the chile sauce to flavor.  

Cool the cooked meat for about 20 minutes, until cool enough to touch. Shred the pork with two forks and place in a bowl. Mix the shredded meat with about a cup of the chile sauce, enough to moisten.

Rinse and clean corn husks thoroughly. Drain well and pat dry.

For every two cups of masa harina meal, add 1/2 cup of shortening. Lard is the traditional ingredient, but shortening makes a lighter tamal. Solid shortening works best. Add 1 tsp. of salt and enough chile powder to the masa to make a pink dough. Add the leftover meat broth to the masa a little at a time and mix by hand to a smooth consistency. Use hot water if you run out of broth.

Now assemble the tamales. Spread the masa mixture about 1/8 inch think on the corn husk with your fingers, leaving a 2 inch border at the top and bottom and a 1/2 inch along the sides. You don't want to spread the masa any thicker than 1/8 inch or it will taste heavy. Put about 2 Tbsp. of the shredded meat on the masa. Fold the sides until they overlap.

Fold the narrow end under and place the tamale down. Each tamale should be tied with either string or a long strip torn from a corn husk. There should be two belts for each tamale to keep them together. 

Place the tamales in a steamer and steam for one hour if you're going to eat them right away. If you're planning on freezing them, steam for 15 minutes, or until the masa is no longer sticky, and steam again for another 20 minutes when they've been taken out of the freezer to be reheated. 

Tamales taste delicious on their own but are even better if any red chile sauce is left over to be dabbled on top. And while they're wonderful at holiday time, they're a fantastic little food package any time of year.