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Making Tamales: A Baja Holiday Tradition

Making tamales is one of the most beloved Baja Holiday Traditions of all.

By Ashley Curtin

It’s that time of year again when decorated Christmas trees light up the room, families come together to share good cheer and holiday traditions are passed down through the generations. One of the many traditions shared in homes across Mexico, and in Baja, is tamale making; Christmas is tamalada time.


Tamales: One of Baja's holiday traditions

Starting with starchy dough made from corn then stuffed with tasty filling such as cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables, tamales are a tradition throughout Mesoamerica. The famous dish, dating back to the pre-classic period of time, is said to have originated in Mexico. Maya settlers, dating back to 8000 BC, prepared tamales, or as they named them, utah, to support their armies and feed the hunters and travelers who were constantly on the road.  Brought back to Spain by the Spanish conquistadors, tamales are a Mexican cultural representation in Europe.

And today, tamales are a traditional holiday food. At Christmas, Día de navidad, families crowd the kitchen for hours to prepare the steamy corn dumplings in plenty. Flour made from hominy and referred to as masa, is mixed together with lard or vegetable shortening to make a masa mix. The mix is scooped and smeared onto a cornhusk then filled with savory and sweet fillings alike and rolled. The cornhusk is tied to keep the dumpling in tact while it gets steamed or, in some cases, boiled in batches. The daunting and time consuming task of tamale making is recognized once the food’s delicious aroma fills the home.


Making tamales can involve all kinds of savory fillings

While tamales are eaten all year through, it is the holiday time, which extends through Three King’s Day on Jan. 6, when they are a culinary staple. The most traditionally made Christmas tamales consist of pork or beef, but chicken is also a very popular filling.  According to a story in the New York Times, Gustavo Arellano, a popular columnist of “¡Ask a Mexican!” said “it is through the process of making tamales that culture is communicated across generations, encompassing the value of family, nourishment and collectiveness.” Arellano believes that tamales bring a sense of magic to the holiday season.


Here is an authentic recipe to follow this holiday season from Delicious Days food blog:

Ingredients: (using 6 pounds of meat makes about 10 dozen tamales and will take over a large American freezer, so feel free to cut this recipe in half or more, but don’t decrease onions or garlic)

 Required Time: 2 days

3 pounds pork roast

3 pounds beef roast

2 large onions

4 cloves garlic

1/3 to ½ cup chili powder or more (depends on heat of chili powder and spice tolerance of tamale eaters)




8 cups masa harina

2 cups shortening or lard

Cornhusks (2-3 packages for full recipe)


Day 1:

Cook meat (pork or beef, or both in separate pots) in a large pot of water (or in a slow-cooker filled with water) with an onion, 2 garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon of chili powder, salt and pepper. Cook for the day, 4 hours minimum. The more broth you can generate from the meat, the better! After the meat is cooked (so that it falls apart and shreds easily), remove from pot, set aside to cool, and puree the onion and garlic with the broth. Then season broth mixture to taste with chili powder and salt.

Shred the meat finely with two forks (you can even chop it after shredding), and store covered in refrigerator separately from broth then soak cornhusks in water overnight.

Day 2:

Rinse and clean cornhusks thoroughly, drain well and pat dry. Now season shredded meat with chili powder, salt, and cumin (optional) to taste. As you season the meat, add a small amount of broth to moisten meat, but it should not be runny.

For every 2 cups of masa harina (meal), add ½ cup of shortening or lard, 1tsp. of salt, and enough chili powder to make pink dough. Add broth mixture a little at a time to masa and mix with your hands to get a smooth, spreadable consistency. If you run out of broth, you can use hot water, but you will wish you had plenty of broth. (If you use about 6 pounds of meat, you will likely use about 8 cups of masa harina in total).

Assemble the tamales:

Spread masa about 1/8 inch thick on corn husk with fingers, leaving about ½ inch border along the sides and 2 inch border along the top and bottom of husk. Use about 2 Tbsp. of shredded meat to fill the tamale (like a cigar). Fold sides until they just overlap, fold narrow end under, and place tamale folded side down. You can tear thin strips of the cornhusks to tie a “little belt” around each tamale to keep it secure. Although this isn’t necessary, it does look the nicest and makes each tamale a little gift to be opened. To cook, steam fresh tamales for 15 minutes or until masa is no longer sticky.


Want to know the best Baja restaurants to visit during the holiday season?  Find out on! is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurants, hotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.  For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at


About Carla White

Carla White is a freelance writer, public relations/marketing consultant and event organizer based in Ensenada, Baja, California. Carla and her husband Jim moved to Baja in 2003 from the Los Angeles area believing that, thanks to the internet and satellite communications, they could continue working from home while enjoying a richer, more affordable lifestyle. So far, they’ve been right. Connect with Carla Google+

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