For the best part of a decade, Paul Wilson read about tamale and wondered what all the fuss was about. To find out, the head chef of the Melbourne Pub Group (MPG) made his way to Mexico in March and ate every tamale he could get his hands on.
“It sort of clarified in my head how much Latin Americans love corn. It’s just another excuse to eat corn,” says Wilson, smiling. “These guys are addicted to corn.”
It’s a telling observation, but the tamale proves a celebration of corniness in a way unmatched by even the tortilla or taco. Made from fine Masa flour and steamed in a cornhusk, it’s essentially corn cooked in corn.
People in Central America have been eating tamales as far back as 7000BC, when the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans used them as a portable snack. Because they’ve been eating tamale for almost 10,000 years, the Mesoamerican people have figured out countless ways to make them delicious.
Tamale can be filled with anything from herbs and vegetables, dairy, savoury meats or sweet dried fruits. A popular Mexican version is the Barbacoa: cooked meat on the bone in a mole sauce stuffed into the tamale and then steamed in a banana leaf or husk. They’re also very popular in the States, with tamale often served in a plastic wrap like a Four’N Twenty Pie.
Lately, the tamale has made its way into fine dining circles, with Wilson reporting that in LA, they’re being served in delicate china a la risotto. In New York, chefs are frying tamale with fois gras and wild mushroom, which Wilson says is kind of “cool and gastronomique”.
But after some intensive tamale research, Wilson still believes in the ancient ways. “I’m an old-school sort of fellow,” he admits. “I like eating what the locals eat. The charm of it to me is how they used the corn husk to cook with.”
For Acland St Cantina, Wilson designed a tamale that’s true to its origins. First, the Cantina’s chefs Dan Hawkins and Cameron Dening make a sweet corn puree to intensify its corny flavour. Then they take the finest Mexican Masa Harina flour and blend the ingredients with lard and seasoning. Finally, the tamale is steamed in a cornhusk and served with whatever accompaniments are on offer (such as rice and salsa). “It’s very simple,” admits Wilson. “Once you get the ratio right.”
Wilson advises that home chefs might want to go by trial and error to work out which proportions work for them, but once you find your mixture, stick to it.
At the moment, Acland St Cantina is serving its tamale with a creamy rabbit stew made with chestnuts and sage. Wilson suggests accompanying a tamale with what the locals drink – some Galician-style, aromatic white wine.
“They are delicious,” says Wilson. “I think they’re just waiting to be discovered in Australia.”