Tamales are a new holiday tradition — one that’s here to stay.
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Growing up in Mexico, I never ate tamales at Christmas. They were always a year-round treat. In my hometown of Puerto Vallarta, located on Mexico’s Pacific coast, we’d stuff ourselves with tamales barbones—tamales bursting with whole, head-on shrimp, whiskers and all. The tender masa is fortified with an extra-shrimpy stock made from a combination of shrimp shells and crushed dried shrimp for good measure. The resulting tamal packs as much brininess as the salty ocean breeze.
This was just one of many varieties we consumed alongside other popular street foods like esquites, made from plump corn kernels, and icy, refreshing paletas. Just as Mexico has many regions, it also has a vast number of tamal styles that vary in shape, filling, and wrapper. Take the corundas from Michoacán, which use the fresh leaves of corn stalks instead of dried corn husks, or the tamales canarios, also from the region, a sweet variety that swaps out masa for rice flour. You could spend your whole life eating tamales and still have more styles left to encounter.
It was only when I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago that tamales became a Christmastime staple for me. I quickly grew to love the Mexican-American tradition of throwing tamal parties, where friends and family would gather and spend the day spreading masa into corn husks while snacking, drinking, and eating. Friends would invite me to come over to teach them how to make a proper tamal, and I would oblige, hoping to show them just how broad the world of the tamal is. While large gatherings might be out of the question this year, a tamal party with one or two people can be just as satisfying. (You can always mail some of your tamal bounty to your loved ones.)
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