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.♦

An Ode to Portable Food

Two food items that rock my world right now are striking in their similarity: hand sized portions of a starch jammed with filling, gift wrapped and steamed to edible perfection.

I am grateful that my place, both on the planet and in history, allow for these foods to coexist in my diet because the origin locations are about as distant from one another as is physically possible. Chinese zongzi (glutenous rice dumplings) are usually wrapped in bamboo leaves into a pyramid shape and filled with things like cubes of roasted pork, boiled eggs, shredded chicken, taro, and Chinese sausage. The ones pictured, from Kam Man supermarket on Canal Street,  have a filling of azuki beans, boiled peanuts, and shiitake mushrooms.

The tamale stand in my ‘hood is run by a mother & son from  Oaxaca. The mother does the cooking, wrapping and steaming her tamales in corn husks after filling them with chicken in salsa verde, pork in salsa roja , picante queso & vegetables, or a sweet version studded with raisins.

Zongzi and tamales are serious comfort foods, despite neither being part of my experience till long after my childhood.