Miriam Maldonado’s Guatemalan Tamales

Archeological evidence shows the tamal dates back nearly 2,000 years, to the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Aztec and the Maya. Today, countries from Mexico to Brazil each have their own version of the dish, although the central elements are constant: masa, meat, and vegetables. The ingredients are wrapped together and cooked in cornhusks or banana leaves. This version is typical of tamales eaten in the Maldonados’ native Guatemala.

Miriam buys her ingredients primarily from two stores, Tienda Guatemala at 10108 Lorain Ave., Cleveland, and La Plaza Supermarket, 13609 Lakewood Heights Blvd., Lakewood. Ingredients are also available at other large and/or ethnic markets across the city.

Yields 50

  • 75 frozen banana leaves
  • 2 pounds pork shoulder or short ribs, or chicken wings and drumsticks, bone-in

Masa Filling

  • 5 cups water
  • 4–5 pounds bag instant corn flour (masa instantánea de maíz)
  • 7 ounces lard (manteca)
  • 6–8 ounces chicken bouillon powder (consomé de pollo) or to taste

Sauce

  • 2 pounds fresh tomatoes
  • 4 large dried ancho chiles, seeds removed
  • 1 loaf white bread, toasted and separated into chunks
  • 4 ounces pumpkin seeds
  • 4 ounces sesame seeds

Garnishes

  • 24-ounce jar roasted red peppers
  • 6-ounce can green olives, pitted
  • 18-ounce package prunes
  • 16– to 20–ounce package raisins

Thaw banana leaves. Split 25 of the leaves in half length-wise along the stem to create 50 halves. Make two piles—one of 50 whole leaves and one of 50 half-leaves.

Bring about 5 cups of water to a boil. Stir in corn flour. Reduce heat to low. Continually whisk to prevent sticking. Cook until corn flour is soft, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in lard and chicken bouillon powder. Stir until the mixture resembles the consistency of mashed potatoes. Set aside and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, bring two large pots of lightly salted water to a boil. In one pot, add meat and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. Strain. In the other pot, add tomatoes and cook until the skins split, about 5 minutes. Strain and remove skins. Split ancho chiles and remove seeds. Working in batches, use a kitchen blender to purée tomatoes, chiles, chunks of toasted bread, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. Add water as needed if consistency becomes too thick. Then bring the sauce mixture to a boil, continually stirring. Remove from heat, and allow to cool.

When the meat is finished, set up an assembly line on a counter or table: banana leaves, masa mixture, meat, sauce, and garnishes. Take one whole banana leaf, then place a half-leaf on top, centered. Spoon about ½ cup masa mixture on top of the half-leaf. Add one piece of meat, then 5–6 tablespoons sauce. Stud the masa mixture with garnishes: one roasted red pepper, one green olive, one prune, and 5–6 raisins. Fold the half banana leaf top-down, bottom-up over the filling. Fold the whole banana leaf toward the center: first the sides, then the top and bottom, forming a square. Set aside. Continue until about 6–8 tamales are formed.

Place tamales in a large pot. Add several inches of water and cover. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Continue forming additional tamales while the first batch cooks, until finished. Serve warm. Uncooked tamales can be frozen for up to six months. For frozen tamales, increase cook time in the pot to 60 minutes.

Editor’s Note: This family recipe is presented exactly as it was executed for the story. If you prefer not to keep the bones in, then you might want to increase the amount of meat you prepare.