At the sound of the B.C. Clark anniversary sale jingle, my olfactory senses fire off a distress signal seeking tamales.
And I'm not alone.
From Enid to Bolivia, folks hanker for this leaf-wrapped steamed masa pastry stuffed with a sweet or savory filling year-round but no more so than the holiday season. Growing up in Central Texas, my family was just as likely to exchange tamales as Christmas cards.
A mantel stacked with Christmas cards is right nice, but a bellyful of tamales is divine.
The tamales we're used to eating are the kind derived from Mexico: corn masa filled with chile-tinged pork and wrapped in dried cornhusks. Sure, the fillings can range from the aforementioned pork to any protein or perhaps a sweet version with pineapple, cinnamon, raisins and nuts, but the masa, whipped with fresh lard and loosened with chicken stock, doesn't change.
Mexican immigrants were the first to arrive in the U.S., bringing along their family recipes to sell out of wagons with kettles of chile con carne. A check of our Oklahoman archives showed mention of tamale/chile con carne vendors dating back to statehood.
But as immigrants from further south have filtered into Oklahoma, the variety of tamales has increased.
If you're looking to engage in heavy-duty tamale gifting this holiday season, you now have options.
Your friendly neighborhood Tex-Mex restaurant is remiss if it's not peddling tamales in bulk this time of year, so finding traditional corn-masa tamales in cornhusks is just a call or two away. But if you're feeling a little more adventurous, you might consider one of our Guatemalan or Peruvian restaurants.
At Cafe Kacao, 3325 N Classen Blvd., the Del Cid family is making traditional Guatemalan tamales, which are made of a masa that combines both corn and rice flour. The fillings come in chicken, turkey, and beef. The masa isn't loosened with chicken stock, it's combined with recado, an aromatic tomato-based sauce, on a banana leaf.
The head cook at Cafe Kacao is Veronica Del Cid, who along with her sons Luidgi and Alex own and operate the restaurant. Veronica demonstrated her tamale expertise for me, and used raw beef rather than cooked. Just a few cubes of beef steam into tenderness in this banana-leaf cocoon. She also added slices of sweet red pepper. The result was a reminiscent but altogether different tamale. The rice flour imparts a flavor quite different from the standard corn version.
But it's the recado that really drives the flavor. Just like the chirmol that makes the Huevos Motulenos sing, the recado in the tamales creates a depth of flavor not common to tamale fillings. Order tamales at Pepe Delgado's, 786 Asp Ave. in Norman, on a Friday, and you'll get a tamale done perfectly: simple masa, simple filling, covered in a spicy, bold red chile sauce. Perfection. The Guatemalan tamale at Cafe Kacao is the inverse, dominant sauce in the center.
“Our tamales are more of an entree,” Luidgi Del Cid said. “Tamales are usually pretty small, like a snack or a side dish.”
So, when ordering from Cafe Kacao, keep in mind you don't need to plan for at least three tamales for everyone on your delivery list.
Somewhere between the tamales at Pepe Delgado's and Cafe Kacao are those you find at Zarate's, 706 S Broadway in Edmond. Owner Jorge Zarate is a native of Peru, and the version he sells in bulk this time of year have corn masa but are wrapped in banana leaves. The filling is rich and spicy, and sauce is optional. But if you've ever had any of the Peruvian sauces at Zarate's, it's really not optional at all.
The nice thing about bulk ordering tamales from any of these places, is that it's an opportunity to sit down to a great meal when you make your pickup. When I worked in Norman from 1997 to 2003, we ate at Pepe Delgado's every Friday. Every Friday. All of them. Sometimes we ate there earlier in the week, too, but that never precluded our Friday visit.
I've said before Cafe Kacao and the nearby Guatemalan eatery Cafe Antigua, 1903 N Classen Blvd., serve the best breakfast in town for my money. Cafe Kacao is planning some big changes come February, adding dinner service and a full bar. Veronica turns out tasty, beautiful foods for breakfast and lunch right now, so this addition is a major coup for Oklahoma City diners.
Whether you decide to go with old standby tamales or something different, these traditional holiday treats will not fail to put you on the nice list of anyone you deliver them to.