Tamales are a Salvadoran family’s tradition

Los Angeles TimesDecember 24, 2013 


Ingredients are ready to roll as Dora Gonzales and her daughter, Cynthia, prepare traditional Salvadoran tamales from an ancient family recipe in Inglewood, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2013.


— “There’s a rhythm to it, the way she works the masa,” Cynthia Gonzalez says quietly. Her mother, Dora, stirs a large pot of masa for tamales over the stove. It’s smooth as custard and lightly fragrant as it begins to bubble.

Salvadoran tamales are Dora’s specialty. They are also tradition that has been passed down, mother to daughter, for generations until now. Cynthia, Dora’s only daughter, had never had any interest in cooking.

“It wasn’t my passion to be in the kitchen,” she says. “Since I was little, I was told women were supposed to be in the kitchen. And I was so against that. Why can’t women do other things?”

Cynthia, a poet, has been writing and performing her work since 2006; her first book, “Suspendidos en el Tiempo,” was released in 2010. A second book is due out next year. She was raised in the Vermont Square neighborhood of South Los Angeles, and much of her work weaves imagery from a sometimes rough childhood and her Salvadoran culture.

In January 2009, Cynthia was invited to perform her work in San Luis Obispo. Cynthia’s grandmother, despite her failing health, and her mother reluctantly agreed to come. After the performance, they were crying. “We are so proud of you,” they said. Cynthia’s grandmother died a few months later.

Recently, Cynthia’s mother has been sick. “My mom and I were talking about this earlier this year, and she wants to know who will carry (the recipes) on.”

“Food is carrying on the legacy,” Cynthia says of her mother while helping to make tamales. “It’s not only carrying on the tradition but also memories of her childhood and the bonds she had with these women (in her family). Women got together to cook but also to share stories. They laugh, they cry.”

Boiled Chicken

1 whole (3-pound) chicken, plus 4 chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)

4 teaspoons salt

Lemon, halved

1 head garlic, halved crosswise

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

2 green bell peppers, coarsely chopped

1 bunch cilantro

1 bay leaf

4 stalks celery

Powdered chicken bouillon, preferably Knorr tomato bouillon with chicken flavor

SPRINKLE whole chicken and breasts evenly with salt. Squeeze lemon over, rubbing juice and salt into chicken.

PLACE chicken in a large stock pot with enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and skim any foam that accumulates on the surface of the water.

CONTINUE to cook for 5 minutes, skimming any additional foam, then add halved garlic, pepper, cumin, oregano, bell peppers, cilantro, bay leaf and celery. Taste broth, and add 2 tablespoons bouillon, or to taste.

SIMMER chicken for 20 to 25 minutes, adding water to keep chicken submerged by 2 inches. The chicken may not be fully cooked (it will continue to cook in a sauce later in the recipe). Remove chicken and strain broth, discarding spices and solids. Set chicken aside until cool enough to handle, and save broth (you should have at least 12 to 14 cups broth).

Spices and Herbs

1 (4-ounce) packet tamale spices and herbs, preferably packaged Miravalle’s Spices, Herbs & Snacks

1 dried guajillo chile

1 dried ancho chile

1/4 teaspoon annato paste or powder

OPEN packaged tamale spices and remove all but 2 bay leaves (the bay leaves can be discarded or saved for another use); if the packet includes a guajillo chile, disregard adding the chile called for in the ingredients. Place spices in a dry skillet, along with guajillo and ancho chiles. Toast spices until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.

PLACE toasted spices and chiles, along with annato paste, in a blender along with enough hot water to cover (about 1 cup). Soak until spices and chiles are softened, 10 to 15 minutes, then puree the mixture. Add water if needed to puree.

STRAIN mixture, discarding solids. Set aside spice and herbs mixture to later add to the sauce.


About 2 1/2 pounds dried masa

10 cups chicken broth, and more as needed (see boiled chicken recipe above)

3 cups canola oil, more to taste

Prepared sauce (see above)

Powdered chicken bouillon



WHISK together masa with 10 cups chicken broth in a large stock pot. Place a strainer over masa, and ladle about 1 1/2 cups reserved sauce into strainer, whisking the strained sauce into the masa (toss any solids back in with the sauce). Whisk in canola oil. Taste mixture, and add 3 tablespoons bouillon, or as desired for flavor. Continue whisking in broth to thin texture of the masa, along with additional oil as desired for richness. The final mixture should be smooth and have a consistency similar to ketchup.

BRING mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Scrape bottom of the pan frequently to keep masa from scorching. Taste frequently, adding additional salt, water, sauce, chicken broth or oil. The trick is to keep the masa moving constantly; never stop moving, shaking or stirring masa with a wooden spoon. Once mixture comes to a boil, it is ready to use in the tamales. The mixture should be thick enough to stay in a tamale when assembling but not too thick that the tamale is difficult to fold.

Tamale Sauce

5 cloves garlic

4 pounds very ripe plum tomatoes

2 green bell peppers, coarsely chopped

1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

3 onions, coarsely chopped

Prepared spices and herbs (see recipe above)

Prepared chicken, cooled (see recipe above)

Prepared chicken broth, optional (see recipe above)

Powdered chicken bouillon, optional

COMBINE garlic, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, black pepper, cumin and onion in a blender or food processor. (This may have to be done in batches.) Puree to form a smooth sauce, then place in a stock pot along with prepared spices and herbs mixture.

PEEL chicken meat from the bones, discarding the skin and bones. Place meat in the pot with the sauce, thinning the sauce if desired with chicken broth. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot frequently to prevent the mixture from burning. Simmer until the flavors are married and the chicken is fully cooked, 10 to 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding 2 tablespoons bouillon, or as desired. Remove from heat and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Salvadoran Chicken Tamales

Adapted from a recipe by Dora Gonzalez.

2 to 3 pounds red or white boiling potatoes

3 1/2 to 5 dozen banana leaf squares, approximately 8-inches square (dimensions will vary depending on the size of the tamales)

Chicken and sauce (see recipes above)

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and peeled

1 (4-ounce) jar capers, drained

About 1 heaping cup drained green olives (whole or pimento-stuffed)

3 1/2 to 5 dozen foil squares, approximately 10 to 12 inches square (dimensions will vary depending on the size of the tamales)

Prepared masa (see recipe above)

PLACE potatoes in a pot and cover with at least an inch of water. Bring to a boil and cook potatoes until a knife pierces easily, about 30 minutes. Drain potatoes, still unpeeled, cutting them into long, large “steak fry”-sized pieces.

PREPARE banana leaves: Trim any stem from leaves, and wash if they are dirty. To soften, pass leaves quickly over a stove-top burner (the heat will soften the leaf, making it easier to roll and fold), or run the leaves under very hot water (dry before using).

CUT or shred chicken in the sauce to desired pieces.

SET out ingredients to assemble the tamales. Have chicken and sauce handy. In separate bowls, place potatoes, garbanzo beans, capers and green olives. Place a banana leaf (smooth side up) over each square of foil, stacking the squares to make the assembly easier.

LADLE a spoonful of masa (about one-half cup) onto the banana leaf about a third of the way from the edge, and top with a little chicken and a drizzle of sauce. Add a slice of potato, a few garbanzo beans, a few capers and 1 olive. Fold banana leaf over the filling to form a tube, gently tucking in filling and removing any air pockets. Fold over foil, then tuck in the sides, sealing the tamale. Repeat until all of tamales are formed. (If the masa thickens too much while assembling the tamales, stir in additional broth or water to thin.)

FILL steamer with boiling water up to the measured line, and line base with a layer of banana leaves. Start laying the tamales in the steamer, first along the outer rim and then in the center. Repeat, stacking tamales in the steamer. Place a few banana leaves over top layer of tamales.

COVER and steam tamales until masa is set, 1 to 2 hours (timing will vary greatly depending on the size of the tamales and how many are stacked in each tamale pot). To check for doneness, remove a tamale and gently pull away the banana leaf; if masa sticks, the tamale is not done. The tamales are finished when the banana leaf pulls away cleanly and masa holds its shape.

REMOVE tamales and cool before serving.

Yield: 60 tamales

Per serving: 179 calories; 6 g protein; 11 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 12 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 14 mg cholesterol; 1 g sugar; 401 mg sodium.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service