Monthly Archives: April 2014

I Say Tamale, You Say Whaaaa?

_MG_6062Photography by Tony Mott, Styling by Ali Nardi

Recently my buddy Tony Mott and I teamed up to do a photo project with my local tortilla joint, La Tortilleria. Tony is a great photographer. He is also the only other person I know other than myself who feeds his pet, a Doberman named Duke, a raw food diet, so naturally, Tony and I make a totally weird awesome team!

La Tortilleria is a small mexican eatery and tortilla wholesaler in Kensington, Melbourne, that makes tortillas  from scratch. They also make awesome cactus and cheese empanadas!



They grind the corn themselves (with the use of a crazy squeeky machine!) to make their own masa de maíz, which translates to corn dough). The dried version of masa de maíz, which is more commonly found, is called masa harina and translates to corn flour. It is often just referred to as masa.


All of the meat they serve at La Tortilleria is free range and humanely treated, and they have awesome vegetarian and vegan option. They are really the local tortilleria for all of Melbourne along with El Cielo, located in the more industrial area of Port Melbourne, as fresh tortillas are not common here (If you are willing to travel to port melbourne, you’ll burn a much smaller hole in your pocket. A kilo of fresh masa from La tortilleria will run you $8 while it is only $3 at El Cielo, and just as delicious. They also offer blue corn products at El Cielo).

Anywho, as I styled and Tony took photos at La Tortilleria, we ate everything we were working with throughout the shoot as one does… My favorite bit (and my favorite photo), was the tamales. I LOVE tamales, and while they were a staple part of my $10/ day lifestyle during the post college year in San Francisco, they are really hard to find over here. It was Tony’s first time tasting one. Even the word was foreign to him, and I threw it around amongst my commonwealth buddies to see if they had ever received this package wrapped appealingly in dried corn husks or banana leaves (tamale strategy changes country by country). Surprise, surprise– they hadn’t. I needed to fix this situtaion.

So I had a group of friends to my place last week for Mexican style tamales. Everyone loved them as much as I hoped they would. As usual, my friend Sel-dawg just went for it and tried eating the corn husk as well. Talk about adventurous eater!

The one con about tamales: They are pretty labor intensive, and in a city like Melbourne, you’ll have to go to multiple shops to gather all of your ingredients. (I have provided a list of tamale ingredient suppliers in melbourne at the bottom of this post.) The trick to make sure it is all worth your effort and is cost effective as well– make them in bulk! They freeze well, and in our case, they didn’t last that long anyway. Tamales are a food you will want to share. These little parcels feel like gifts.

I’d like to share a few tamale tips with you, and let you know my new approach to the fat component that goes in the masa mixture. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s coconut oil.

There are 4 components to your tamale dough.

  • Masa (in fresh or flour form)
  • Fat (traditionally lard or butter; shortening is another option– now it can be solidified coconut oil too!)
  • Stock to thin the dough out and give it flavor and moisture
  • Salt (sometimes this is already in the masa, so make sure to taste before you add extra)

I don’t use lard in my tamales, not because i am against lard, but because I like to know where my animal products come from, and the stick of lard from the supermarket most likely does not come from free ranged meat…. I stay away from shortening as a rule (just use butter in your pie crust!), and because Anders purchased an industrial sized bucket of organic coconut oil (at industry price :), it just make sense.

The filling for your tamale is often slow cooked pork, beef or chicken, in a sauce made from a variety of dried chillies (In Melbourne, you can find the chillies at Casa Iberica Deli in Fitzroy). Vegetarian tamales are just as delicious, and are usually filled with veggies and cheese.

I made delicious beef tamales in a red chilli sauce (and added a few non traditional extras– my adaptation in the recipe below).

I have a ridiculously large steamer that I acquired while styling for a cookbook, and being able to steam 50 tamales at a time was key to keeping my sanity, as opposed to doing them in tiny batches.

Below is the “approach” I use. I’ve given you measurements to make about 3 dozen tamales  (I made about 100 and found that one pack of corn husks from Casa Iberica Deli was more than enough!).

Smokey Beef Tamales  (adapted from multiple recipes, including Tyler Florence’s recipe on, and tips from the chef at La Tortilleria)

yield: About 3 Dozen

Ingredients for dough using fresh masa (Tyler Florence has a good dough recipe if using masa flour here):

  • 1 kilo fresh masa
  • 250 grams solidified coconut oil (ratio of masa to fat should be around 4:1)
  • 1/2 – 1 cup beef or veggie stock if using fresh masa (if making beef tamales, just use stock from slow cooked beef (you’ll need a lot more if using masa harina base)
  • Salt to taste

Ingredients for filling:

  • 1 pound whole piece of free range beef for slow cooking– a roast or brisket works well
  • 100 grams dried chillies, tops and seeds removed (Pasilla, Ancho, and New Mexican chillies all work)
  • Enough stock (from slow cooking beef) or water to cover chillies
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 1 head garlic peeled
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tspn smoked paprika
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Salt to taste
  • Enough corn husks for 3 dozen tamales (Case Iberica Deli)
  • Sourcream and lime or lemon wedges to serve
  1. Place meat, 1 sliced onion, 1 tspn salt, and half the peeled garlic in a heavy pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover with lid and turn down to gentle simmer. Cook for 2 hours, or until very tender and falling apart. When finished cooking move beef to deep baking dish and shred with two forks. Reserve the liquid in pot and put through sieve. This is your beef stock.
  2. For the red chilli sauce, place your chillies, cumin seeds, smoked paprika,  remaining onion and garlic in a pot and add enough beef stock to cover (if you don’t have enough for dough and chillies, you can add some water too). Add salt to taste. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until chillies are very soft. Allow to cool slightly, then blend into a sauce with an immersion blender (or if you are scared of those, a normal blender). Add the lemon juice. Pour the sauce over the beef and stir to coat. Your filling is ready.
  3. For the tamale dough: in a large bowl, cream solidified coconut oil (or other fat) until fluffy. Add in fresh masa using hands. Add enough stock to make the mixture soft and easy to work with, but not too mushy. This part you have to play by ear a bit.
  4. Assemble the tamales! Soak your corn husks in warm water for 20 minutes at least. Start with the larger ones. Spread a thin layer of masa onto the smooth side of the corn husk. There will be a wide top to the husk that comes down to a point. Cover the top half (I don’t have the words to explain this bit very well, but there are some instructional videos on YouTube. Here is one I found helpful.)I use a wet palm but everyone has their preferred method. Place about a tblspn of filling on the masa towards the edge of the husk, and roll. Fold bottom end up and pinch top. If you want to get fancy with it, you can tie a corn husk bow around the tamale, which is also a helpful trick if you are layering two corn husks to get enough surface are (again the video is a very good resource!)
  5. To cook the tamales, places then in a steamer with the open side up (i place a bowl or foil ball in the center of the steamer to prop them on.) Steam for 1.5-2hrs or until tamale dough is nice and firm.
  6. To serve unwrap the tamale from the corn husk. I love them for breakfast with eggs and hot sauce. For dinner, I served them up with a fresh tomato salsa, sour cream with a bit of lime zest, and a lemon and lime cabbage slaw (just the cirtus, some salt, and some thinly sliced scallion– cuts through the richness of the tamale). Oh and hot sauce is a must!

Where to find tamale ingredients in Melbourne, Australia:

  • Casa Iberica Deli in Fitzroy has masa harina (masa in flour form), corn husks, dried chillies, spices
  • El Cielo in Port Melbourne has white fresh masa available during the week, and sells masa harina (blue corn as well). They also have dried chillies and an awesome collection of mexican products
  • La Tortilleria in Kensington has fresh masa, as well as a a good selection of mexican ingredients