We talked to four women who are, before all, guardians of the traditional flavors her families enjoy during Christmas celebrations. They shared the secrets those dishes hold, which connect them to their countries and family heritage. Rosa Linda Aguirre, Francesca Ruiz y Suchi Shang shared their secrets for the preparation of their holiday tamales, in their Mexican, Peruvian and Costa Rican versions. Meanwhile, Yaya Lander talked to us about the “hallaca”, which is the Venezuelan version of the tamale.
Savory and sweet tamales for every taste
Rosa Linda Aguirre came to the United States in 1968. She was born and raised in Tamaulipas, a northern state in Mexico, from where she brought many of the recipes her family enjoyed during Christmas holidays. “I continue to make here the sweet tamales, with pineapple and raisins, that I ate when I was a child,” said Rosa Linda. She added, “These are small balls of “masa” (corn dough); with a little food coloring, so the kids enjoy it. We eat them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
Rosa Linda began the conversation talking about desert, but quickly switched to explain how she prepares her tamales for Christmas. “I prepare them according to my family’s preferences. Out of my 5 children, some like chicken, but others don’t. One of my daughters prefers the tamales with “rajas” (strips of roasted chili), which I make with Anaheim peppers and cheese. Others prefer the typical red tamale, made with pork and red chili. But every tamale I make has cumin; which is my favorite seasoning,” she said.
Tradition and innovation
Rosa Linda follows the family recipes, but she also likes to innovate. “In my home town, we only used two kinds of chilies. Here, there is a wide variety. I season my tamales with red chili and green chili, but I also use the Arbol and California varieties,” she explained. She also added “my children as well as my customers at the restaurant like my tamales to be spicy. I am also making them low in fat, so they are healthier.”
At Rosa Linda’s home, Christmas dinner also includes rice, beans, salad, and turkey or cod. “I serve this food like it was served in my home town, with cinnamon tea and a good ‘champurrado’, which is prepared with corn dough and chocolate.” Christmas flavors remind Rosa Linda of ‘norteña’ songs from Cornelio Reyna, Celia Cruz’s salsa and ‘villancicos’ (Christmas Carrols). “The first thing I do when I am getting ready to cook is to play this music. When I hear it, I feel it is Christmas,” she concluded.
You can enjoy Rosa Linda’s tamales at: Rosa Linda’s Mexican Café
2005 W 33rd Ave. Denver, CO 80211
Tamales with Asian affection
Suchi Shang came to Costa Rica from Taiwan when she was 14 years old. Her father had business there and the whole family migrated. “At the Our Lady of the Pilar School of the Sisters of Saint Anne, I learned Spanish and also how to make Christmas tamales.” She added, “I didn’t like them at the beginning, because they had a different texture from the Chinese tamales I was used to, which are prepared with rice and bamboo leaves.”
Suchi lived in Costa Rica for 10 years. “With time, I got used to eating them outside of my house. It was my husband Miguel, also from a Chinese family, who encouraged me to start making them. He loves ‘tica’ (Costa Rican) food. Here in the United States, Suchi dusted off her memories, and with the help of Costa Rican friends in Denver, she began to make them. “I found the banana leaves to wrap them. The leaves give ‘tica’ tamales its peculiar flavor,” she said.
With a “sour” touch
“My tamales are made with chicken, like Miguel likes them,” she said. “I stir the lard to soften it. Then I add the corn flour and small increments of chicken stock. That way, all ingredients combine properly,” said Suchi, with the demeanor of an expert. “I take a portion of dough and add chicken and pickled vegetables. I also add rice and olives, before I wrap it in the banana leave,” said Suchi.
Suchi remembers when she used to walk through the Avenida Segunda in San José, “on Christmas Eve, they would through confetti on the streets to simulate the snow.” She added: “In our house, we keep the ‘tica’ traditions and we have combined them with Chinese and American traditions.” Suchi ads a personal touch to her tamales: “I add the juice from the pickled vegetables to the dough and some tomato paste to give it a ‘sour’ touch. That is my contribution to enrich the flavor.”
Suchi’s tamales available at: Red Dragon Chinese Restaurant
2456 S Colorado Blvd. Denver, CO 80222
Tamales with Peruvian flavor
In Perú, tamales are an important piece of the Christmas dinner, together with turkey, pork and ‘panetón’. “We eat tamales year-round. On weekends, they are a brunch favorite. But the ones we make for the holidays are made with extra care,” said Francesca Ruiz, owner of Peruvian restaurant Los Cabos. Peruvian tamales are usually served with a red onion and lime salad.
Francesca Ruiz, born in Lima, also wraps her tamales on banana leaves. “I roast the leaves before I wrap the tamales. I prepare the dough with white corn. To mix the dough, I don’t use lard, I use the broth from the pork that goes in the tamale. I make organic tamales. And they are very different from the Mexican and Central American tamales; even though they are all cooked by steam.”
She continued describing her method: “My tamales are stuffed with pork or chicken. I also add a piece of hardboiled egg. But the main ingredient is the Peruvian dry chili called Mirasol. This chili gives a special flavor which is not spicy. It even adds color to the dough,” she said. “Peruvian tamales are unique. They have the flavor of the chili and the banana leave. They have a good texture and shape.”
Francesca follows the traditional recipes her mother and grandmother passed to her. But she decided to innovate, and she is preparing tamales with quinoa, an original grain from the Peruvian Andes. She explains the nutritional value of the quinoa: “It has antioxidants, improves the immune system; and it is recommended for diabetics. I am making quinoa tamales, vegetarian or with chicken breast.” They are already in the menu at Los Cabos Restaurant.
Francesca’s tamales available at: Los Cabos Restaurant
1525 Champa St. Denver, CO 80205
‘Hallaca’: The queen of Venezuelan Christmas
The main icon of the Venezuelan cuisine for Christmas is the ‘hallaca’. This dish holds similarities in shape and preparation with the Mexican, Costa Rican and Peruvian tamales. “They are wrapped in banana leaves, they are boiled, but we use a specific pre-cooked corn flour that is yellow,” said Yaya Lander, a Venezuelan who lives in Golden. “The end result is an original and unforgettable flavor,” said Yaya.
‘I was born in Caracas, from Spaniard parents. I learned the recipe for the hallacas from my mother in law, Mercedes Elena Avendaño de Lander. She would command an army of 10 family members who enlisted every December to prepare the hallacas,” said Yaya. She continued: “Here, I make the hallacas by myself. I get up at 2 am and I spend 24 hours in the process. When I go back to bed, the kitchen is clean, and the hallacas are in the refrigerator.”
Yaya’s hard work reflects the complexity of the dish. “The dough must be very thin. It is like silk that melts in your mouth. I stuff them with a stew made from chicken, tomatoes, onions and peppers. I also add a pinch of raw sugar, vinegar, green chili and ‘sambal’ a spice from South East Asia. In the end, I decorate it with a piece of pork meat, capers, olives, raisins and almonds,” she explained.
This hallaca features a mix of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors. “It is not a simple flavor, it is a cosmopolitan dish,” Yaya affirms. She makes the hallacas in her house and sells them by order. “I have American customers who once lived in Venezuela and miss the hallacas during Christmas time. I ship them frozen by mail,” she said. She also added: “The hallaca must be eaten alone, with a glass of red wine; eating it with something else would be sacrilegious.”
Yaya’s hallacas available by calling:
Yaya Lander | 303-503-4456