Several of my attempts at joining Lasang Pinoy's Food blogging event in the past failed, but this time, I am determined to finish this entry because I am raring to tell you all about our family's favorite Christmas food gift--the tamales. But first let me give you a brief introduction of this Pampango delicacy and its importance to our family.
The tamales is a native rice cake that is popular in Pampanga, especially in Bacolor where, the best tamales, they say, come from. It's an offshoot of the Mexican tamal (tamales is the plural form), which are packets of corn dough with a savory or sweet filling and typically wrapped in corn husk. I surmise that substitution of ingredients through the years, resulted in this Filipino version of the tamales.
Anyway, the tamales is cooked by mixing ground rice and coconut milk and thinned with water, then seasoned with powdered black pepper, anato seed water (for coloring) and salt. The mixture is cooked in slow fire until a certain consistency is reached, then when cooled is wrapped in squared banana leaves, topped with slivers of chicken meat cooked asado style, slices of boiled eggs and ground peanuts. The final product is then steamed for an hour or until it has settled and the tamales has taken shape. A melt-in-the-mouth tamales has a jelly like consistency after steaming, with a hint of green from the banana wrapping.
The tamales has become my mother's 'signature dish' and our Christmas wouldn't be complete without it on our noche buena table. Placed side by side with ham, queso de bola, roasted turkey or chicken on your dining table, the tamales would look very 'out of place', but to us, it is the 'star' of our noche buena feast, something we would always look forward to having during this festive occasion. Let me tell you why.
Father’s roots were from Bacolor, hence his fondness for tamales. When he and mother got married, they settled in nearby town, Sta. Rita. Mother knew how much Father missed the tamales. For love of him, Mother, who was the youngest among 12 siblings and who knew nothing about cooking, decided to learn how to make the tamales. But since it's such a tedious and fiddly job, she would only make them on special occasions like Christmas and included them on our Noche Buena feast.
However, the first Christmas she tried to make tamales was a disaster. Since she relied only on calculation for the ingredients, the resulting tamales were soggy and salty. Out of politeness, father ate the tamales and appreciated her efforts and good intention.
The following Christmas after that first attempt, she was armed with the measurements courtesy of her eldest sister. This time, there was an improvement. The tamales had the right taste, but were too firm, looking more like kalamay-wrapped-in-banana leaves instead of tamales. That was because she used newly-harvested rice. That was another lesson learned.
Since she would make a lot of tamales every time (five gantas of rice would yield 80-100 pieces of medium sized individually wrapped tamales), she would offer them to our relatives who would come visiting on Christmas day, and sometimes would send some more to those who did not come.
Determined to make the perfect tamales, mother would make her attempts Christmas after Christmas, and each year, registering an improvement. Until finally, she was able to come up with neither salty nor soggy, but melt-in-the-mouth and really delicious tamales. By this time we have become accustomed to having tamales on our noche buena feast, not to mention we have acquired the taste for this native kakanin. Even our relatives who come visiting would also ask her for more tamales. Every year thereafter, she would make lots of them a day before Christmas, anticipating more of our kins and later, some of our neighbors clamoring for her tamales. And thus, started a tradition of giving tamales as a Chirstmas food gift.
Five years ago, mother left us to be with our father who went ahead seven months earlier.
The very first Christmas as orphans was the saddest Christmas for all ten of us, their children. Needless to say, the first Christmas in years that the tamales was not on our dining table, and no tamales to offer to visiting relatives and friends.
Two years ago, our eldest sister, decided that we have to bring back the tamales tradition in remembrance of our mother. So, all of us women siblings set to work for that one goal--tamales on our Noche Buena feast. We were confident that years of observing mother cook tamales has taught us how to do it ourselves.
Unfortunately, our first tamales two Christmases ago, were soggy and salty.
Last year, our tamales were soggy but no longer salty. This Christmas, as I celebrated Christmas away from home, I tried to make some, but these too were not perfect.
Next Christmas, I will be home in Pampanga, and we are determined to make the perfect tamales for us and for our visiting relatives, the way Mother did them, with so much love and patience.
Lasang Pinoy, which could mean ‘tastes of something Filipino’ or short for ‘the Filipino taste’ is a monthly food blogging event to promote Filipino food. It is a product of e-mail brainstorming sessions of several Filipino food bloggers who thought it was time for a Filipino event in the tradition of Is My Blog Burning. The blogger organisers of Lasang Pinoy and participants strive to make the events reflective of Filipino culture.