Tamales (Love letter to my childhood)

4:30 AM: The alarm echoes in the bedroom, and after a few minutes, the lights flick on in the kitchen. The pots have already been placed – medium heat – and set up on the stove the night before. Slowly, the air begins to fill with the aromatic flavors of the kitchen.

6:30 AM: The corn husks can no longer contain the vapor. At this point, the house is filling itself with aromas that awaken one’s hunger. I open the door of my room on the second floor and the flavors burst through, engulfing the place with the fragrance of different spices so powerfully that they are almost palpable. When I descend into the kitchen, there it is. The atole. Always on time; a rich mixture of milk, coconut, cornstarch and sugar, eager to boil.

7:30 AM: The tamale pots are being loaded into the trunk of the car, followed by the hot atole, and carefully driven towards the central Mercado of the little town. Outside the market, the pots filled with tamales are set up on stools, while a little foldable plastic table holds the disposable plates, cups, and utensils.

8:00 AM: Church bells announce the beginning of mass. The little kids from the private colegio are walked into mass, some of them complaining, and others disturbing the poor nun as she tries to hush the children. The Mercado’s murmur is slowly resounding with chisme from the housewives that are busy buying meat, vegetables, fish, chicken; everything for the meal that day. From the vegetables still covered in some dirt because they were just pulled from the local farm ground, to the spectacular-looking cuts of recently slaughtered beef – freshness is key.

Meanwhile, the tamal business is picking up quickly. Customers are opening the pots to find varying colors and aromas. Everything from mole rojo con carne (beef with red sauce), mole verde (green sauce), pollo con verduras (chicken with vegetables), to dessert. For dessert, you’d find the sweet tamales, canela con pasas (cinnamon-raisin), piña con coco (coconut-pineapple), and elote (sweet corn).

As the day goes on and business continues picking up in the market, back at the house, the kitchen is once again filled with pounds and pounds of masa (corn dough), meat, chicken vegetables, lard, garlic, and more. I’m getting ready to get on the bus for school, struggling to simultaneously drink my glass of milk and slip my backpack on. I hear the bus coming and run to the stop with a slice of warm bread that has been quickly seared in butter and sprinkled with sugar.

The kitchen in the house is now in full cooking mode – garlic is being peeled, crushed and browned to a beautiful golden color; onion and tomatoes are being chopped and added; pork and chicken are being boiled while the sauces are simmering. The four-burner stove can’t take any more pots but somehow, it seems like it does the work of any industrial stove in the world’s best restaurants. After all, the kitchen has sung the same melody over and over, a familiar symphony of arranged smells, colors, and flavors.

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NOON: All the tamales have been sold. Time to head back home with more provisions for the next day’s tamales.

1:00 PM: Chiles are being blended, masa is being kneaded with some lard, salt, and a few other secret ingredients, corn husks are being cleaned and washed, the pork and chicken are now out of the stove, cinnamon is being ground, and all the preparation is almost over.

2:00 PM: Kitchen is prepared to start an assembly line. Unlike any other house, this kitchen is not glamorous nor filled with little housewife equipment – it’s much closer to an industrial restaurant kitchen, or a heavy-duty battlefield. Efficient, it always stores the bare minimum on its counters in order to maximize available space. All the ingredients are placed on a long table and the assembly line starts its daily routine.

img_1894-3Expert hands are cultivatable. They are trained, precise, and humble. Without the need for cumbersome tools, it is those hands that carefully spread the perfect portion of masa on rehydrated corn husks, the perfect amount of pulled pork or chicken, the perfect amount of vegetables or sauce, the perfect 45° angle placement that has never actually been measured. No clumsy factory machine could ever come close.

After school, I open the door and leave my backpack on the living room floor. I hurry into the kitchen to ask about dinner; I am walked through how to cook the soup, rice, or protein for that day’s dinner and my brothers follow my lead, helping make a fresh salad or an agua fresca. It’s around 4:00 PM and dinner is almost ready. The tamales are done and are being loaded into the freezer for a few hours. My mom comes to the stove and finishes what I started, correcting a few mistakes and letting me know how to do it better next time. Tortillas are being heated over the comal, queso fresco, and avocado are being sliced around the table and everyone seems happy with dinner.

After washing dishes and doing homework, the street fills with neighborhood kids; we all play soccer, softball, or hide and seek. It’s around 6:30 PM and I crave something sweet. I inspect my pockets — two pesos. I run to the store and buy a mazapan, a delicious mixture of roasted peanuts, ground to a fine powder and mixed with confectioner’s sugar to create a simple melt-in-your-mouth dessert.

8:00 PM My brothers and I take the 5-minute walk to el jardín with our parents, where we run and play in the main town square. I ask my mom for an elote, and she obliges. Happiness is a face smeared with crema, chile y limón.

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10:30 PM: As we make our way back home, I feel like the luckiest kid on earth. At this point, my parents proceed to the kitchen once again to complete the last tamal ritual of the day. The bottom of the vaporera is filled with water and a repisa is placed; they now commence the art of standing one tamal right next to each other as they follow a circular pattern to the center of the pot. When they finish, the pot looks like a perfect circle and I’m mesmerized by the patterns of red and green sauce.
It’s time to place the vaporera on the stove once again, turn off the kitchen light, and wait for the 4:30 am alarm that will surely, and without hesitation, ring on time.

After 25 years of waking up to the smell of tamales and falling asleep with the image of them perfectly aligned, my tireless parents do not hesitate to wake up at 4:30 AM day after day.


Tamales are the reason for my success. They are the motivation for my college degree, for my travels around the world, and the reason why my brain now goes crazy in Español, English, and Portugês all at the same time.

Tamales are part of a great heritage in México; they are traditional for Christmas Eve and a delightful way to start the day. For me, tamales are the fuel for dreams, the reason why now I work in a restaurant – I can’t get enough of the beauty and fulfillment that you experience by working with food, by feeding someone, by taking people back in time with spices and aromas.

“Tamales are the food of my life and the reason for my existence. Whatever I try to cook or create, I will always try to take people to the experience of waking up to the aromas of 6:30 am in the middle of México at the little house of tamales.”

By Cristian Hernandez

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