Tamales Oaxaqueños

My previous post was a partial tribute to tamales, but a variety of particular note deserve an ode of their own.

Tamale Oaxaqueño, chicken mole negro filling

Carmen Mendez, chef and owner of the E 138th Street cart, is the woman responsible for supplying the south Bronx with tamales every morning for the past 8 years. She is a native of Tlapa de Comonfort, in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The small city lies on the western border of the state of Oaxaca; here oaxaqueños are the popular regional tamales. Like their more common corn-husk wrapped cousins, masa dough surrounds a delicious filling, but an oaxaqueño is wrapped in a banana leaf. The flavor of the banana leaves seep into the oaxaqueños, giving these tamales a distinctive taste.

Carmen Mendez’s Stand, 138th Street
Señora Mendez with her son


Tamale is a derivative of tamalii, the word for “wrapped food” in Nahuatl, an Aztec language. Tamales are recorded as early as 7000-5000 BC, when, as war inspires invention, they were created as portable food for Aztec, Mayan, and Incan warriors.

The tamales of old came in varieties not seen today. Crushed rice or beans were used at times in place masa.  Frog, iguana, gopher, rabbit, turkey eggs, bees, and nuts were acceptable fillings; any non-poisonous leaves, even paper or bark, were acceptable wrappers. They were grilled, roasted, boiled or fried in addition to steamed.

Because tamales are labor intensive -and delicious!- it is virtually unheard of to make just a few. A food this fantastic calls for a fiesta: a tamalada, a tamale-making party.♦

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