I’m in Vegan Tamale Shock!

Let me start with this statement: I love tamales.

(Hopefully that will serve to explain the existence of this long, rambling post.)

As with mole and pan dulce, the first time I can remember having eaten a tamale is August of 2006, in Mérida, Mexico.  In the state of Yucatán, (where the city of Mérida is located) tamales are slightly different than those you find at most Mexican restaurants in the US.  In Yucatán, traditional restaurants and cocina económicas (small restaurants or individuals who cook a different type of food each day of the week) sell a special variety of tamales, called vaporcitos.  Vaporcitos are cooked in banana leaves instead of corn husks, which give them a slightly different flavor.  Throughout my time in Mexico, Saturday was tamale day.  My host mom would go to a nearby cocina económica and bring me home two delicious tamales.  They were so flavorful and moist that I didn’t even add sauce to them, except for a little bit of super-spicy salsa de chile habanero.  (I should add that, during my semester in Mexico, I temporarily took a break from eating vegetarian, which I was at the time, so that my host family wouldn’t need to make me my own special meat-free food.)

Since then, I’ve tried vegetarian tamales at Mexican restaurants.  I never liked them much because they were drowned in sauces and cheese.  I did quite enjoy Trader Joe’s Cheese and Green Chile tamales, before I decided to start eating vegan.  However, these very cheesy tamales tasted nothing like the tamales I remembered from Mérida, which had been filled mostly of some sort of meat and sauce.

So, when I saw recipes for vegan tamales in Terry Hope Romero’s Viva Vegan, I was excited.  Not just a little bit excited, but very excited.  Very, very excited.

It took me a while to work up the cooking-confidence to give it a try, but that time finally came.

Of the several varieties she has recipes for, I chose to make the Red Chile-Seitan Tamales.  These tamales, she said in the book, would fairly closely resemble traditional red chile tamales.  Cooking the tamales actually required four different recipes, all from Viva Vegan.  First I made the Steamed Red Seitan (to act as the meaty filling).  Then I made the Red Chile Sauce.  Next, I prepared the Savory Vegan Masa Dough.  Last, I was ready to follow the directions for the tamales themselves.  It was a multi-day, many-hour process.  But in the end, I can unequivocally say that it was worth it.  These tamales may be the most delicious things I have ever eaten.

This post is going to be image-heavy, because tamales are beautiful.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, I’m not sure), I dropped my camera and ended up loosing some pictures.  (And, by dropped I actually mean: walked into the cord attaching it to the wall while the battery was charging and ended up flinging the camera across the room and onto the floor).  The camera still works (it is a hearty little camera – approaching its eight birthday), it’s just that some of the files became corrupted during the camera’s failed attempt at flight.

Okay, onto the tamales.

First, I made the Steamed Red Seitan.  While I had previously made seitan sausages, I had never just steamed a loaf of seitan to use in cooking.  I had bought the water-packed kind at the store a few times.  It was expensive.  I was ready to make my own.

Steamed Red Seitan ingredients

Steamed Red Seitan ingredients.

The ingredients are fairly basic (if you already happen to have vital wheat gluten and garbanzo flour, as I did).

Cubed Steamed Red Seitan

Cubed Steamed Red Seitan.

After you mix it all together, knead it, wrap it in tinfoil, steam it, cool it, and cube it, it looks like any store-bought seitan!

Next, I made the Red Chile Sauce.

Dried ancho and guajillo chiles.

Dried ancho and guajillo chiles.

After removing the stems and deseeding the chiles, they were ready to be cooked together with onions, tomatoes, vegetable broth, and spices.

Red Chile Sauce, cooking.

Red Chile Sauce, cooking.

The next step was to puree the sauce.  Unfortunately, I did not heed the directions on my food processor, and filled the bowl much higher than the fill line.  There was sauce pouring out of every part of the food processor.  It was a pretty impressive mess, and I now know to not put liquids above the fill line on my food processor.

A few days later, I got ready to mix the masa and assemble the dough.  I was a little overwhelmed and basically just threw everything onto the table in a big mess of ingredients.

Tamale-making ingredients.

Tamale-making ingredients.

I have the broth, the vegetable shortening, the Earth Balance, the baking powder, the garlic powder, the salt, and the masa for the dough.  I have the sauce already made in the tupperware containers, and the seiten already made and cubed.  I have the onion and red peppers sliced and ready to saute for the filling.  I also have way too many corn husks.  (I wanted to be prepared!)  And, the most important part – the Viva Vegan cookbook!

Earth Balance and vegetable shortening.

Earth Balance and vegetable shortening.

First, I started by creaming together the Earth Balance and the shortening.  Even though I use non-hydrogenated organic shortening, it still sort of grosses me out.  It’s just so greasy (which makes sense, since it’s oil…)

Creamed Earth Balance and vegetable shortening

Creamed Earth Balance and vegetable shortening.

Then I added the dry ingredients to the creamed fat.

Dry Masa Dough

Dry masa dough.

After the dough reached a “sandy” consistency, I added the vegetable broth and mixed until smooth.

At this point, I had all the components ready.  All I had to do was assemble.  The assembly process was surprisingly easy, though it did take quite a while.  But it was enjoyable mindless work, and pleasant enough.  By the time I ran out of masa, I had 21 gorgeous tamales, wrapped in corn husks and tied shut with little strips of cornhusk.

Tamales, ready to be steamed.

Tamales, ready to be steamed.

After I finished wrapping the first tamale, I was flabbergasted that it actually looked like a tamale! Like, the kind you’d buy from somewhere.  And I had just made it.  From scratch! A real, live, (well, not live since no animals were harmed in the making of these tamales) tamale!

Tower of tamales.

Tower of tamales.

I started snapping photographs left and right.  These tamales have been more photographed than most celebrities.

Then, I lined the steamer basket with extra corn husks, and piled the tamales in.

Tamales: Moments before steaming.

Tamales: Moments before steaming.

My 21 tamales just fit in the steamer.  I think it’s a good thing that I didn’t make 24 like the recipe stated I should – I don’t know that they all would have fit!

The next thing I knew, 65 minutes were up, and the tamales were ready to be removed from the heat.  Then, after another excruciating 15 minutes, they were ready to be eaten.

I took one out of the steamer basket and laid it on a plate.

Tamale, still wrapped in corn husk.

Tamale, still wrapped in corn husk.

It still, surprisingly enough, looked like a tamale.

Wrapped Red-Chile Seitan Tamale.

Wrapped Red-Chile Seitan Tamale.

This tamale had a jaunty side-tied knot.

Wrapped Red-Chile Seitan Tamale, tunnel view.

Wrapped Red-Chile Seitan Tamale, tunnel view.

It’s like playing peek-a-boo with the tamale.  Or else, perhaps the tamale is going to jump out and attack.  I can hear the Jaws theme now… (Only, no shark would eat this tamale, because it’s meat-free!)

After all the dramatics of admiring the husk, I was ready to open it up and find out for certain if it had turned into a tamale.

So, I cautiously opened it, and found inside, a perfectly formed tamale!  I poured on some more red chile sauce.

Perfect Red-Chile Seitan Tamale, angle one.

Perfect Red-Chile Seitan Tamale, angle one.


Perfect Red-Chile Seitan Tamale, angle two.

Perfect Red-Chile Seitan Tamale, angle two.


So, at this point I knew that it looked like a tamale, and smelled like a tamale, but the biggest question was, did it taste like a tamale.

I will let this g-chat conversation, between me and my sister and occurring moments after I tasted my first tamale, answer that question:

Me: i just took a bite and it is SO GOOD. YUUUMMMMM
Sister: haha. nicee
Me: i want to eat all 21 RIGHT NOW.
Sister: you would not be happy
Me: no…i would not. but still. they taste like TAMALES!
Sister: good
Me: they taste like meaty tamales because of the seitan and spices. THEY ARE SO GOOD. i can’t believe it.
Sister: hah
Me: i’m in tamale shock. TAMALE SHOCK.
Sister: calm down. deep breaths
Me: i just finished the second one.
Sister: nicee
Me: i don’t ever want to eat anything else ever again. only these tamales.
20 minutes later…
Me: i just ate my third.


As you can see, I loved these tamales so much that apparently I forgot how to appropriately use capital letters. (And I’m a teacher. Teachers are always supposed to follow capital letter rules.)  While I was on a tamale high, my sister was substantially less impressed.  Of course, that’s only because she didn’t have any gloriously amazingly scrumptious vegan tamales to eat.

Overall, the tamales were quite a process.  They took a long time.  A long, long time.  They created a mess.  Quite a mess.  But they are delicious.  So, so, delicious.  They are sweet and meaty and saucy and masa-y and everything else that tamales should be.

I think the next tamales I make will be Chocolate Brownie Tamales.  I found the recipe on Terry’s (the author of Viva Vegan) website and they look great.  Chocolate and tamale?  They aren’t exactly traditional, and I never would have thought the two could be combined…but now that I know they can, I need to make them.  And I do have two extra bags of corn husks, along with most of a package of masa.  Look for pictures of these chocolate tamales within the next few weeks… I don’t think it will be long before these are made.


Empanadas and Tres Leches Cake

A few weeks ago I was browsing the Internet, and came upon Viva Vegan, by Terry Hope Romero, co-author of Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, my cookie book of choice.  I went to the bookstore the next weekend, looked at the recipes, and started drooling right there in the cookbook section.  The book has hundreds of recipes of foods from around Latin America; stews and sauces, tamales, empanadas, deserts, and Sweet Corn Ice-Cream (a recipe I have been searching for since I first ate it in Southern Mexico in 2006!).  Everything sounded SO GOOD.  I bought the book and just read it for a few weeks before actually making anything.

We were going to celebrate a coworker’s birthday at work one day, and someone else volunteered to make a tres leches cake (a yellow cake soaked in three different milks).  I immediately jumped up and decided that I would take that duty with the Viva Vegan Coconut Tres Leches Cake.

Traditionally, the cake is soaked in three different dairy milks (sweetened condensed milk, cream, and evaporated milk).  For the vegan version you use almond milk, coconut milk, and coconut cream.

At first, I was just proud of myself that my cake came out of the oven looking like a cake.  I had not yet ever made a vegan cake, so that in and of itself was quite the success.  Then, I started making the soaking liquid.  It was surprisingly complicated, and resulted in my liquidy pot of milks and sugars boiling over into the burner.  (Oops.)  But, eventually the liquid had thickened and was ready to be poured onto the cake.  One of the fun parts was poking the cake with lots and lots of holes so that the liquid would soak better.  Maybe I’m just a violent person at heart, but I really liked attacking that cake with hundreds of tiny toothpick stabs.

But, the hard part was yet to come – the frosting.  This frosting marks my first experience with agar agar.  (And the procurement was a whole obstacle itself.  First I went to Whole Foods, balked at the price, and decided to go to my regular grocery store, as I had remembered seeing it there a few months ago.  So, I went to the other store, looked around for a while, asked an employee who went to go check, and found out that they had stopped carrying agar agar.  Then I had to go back to Whole Foods again, and buy the expensive agar flakes.  But, I guess the package will last me a really long time, so it’s not too bad.)  Agar helps to gelatinize foods, without regular gelatin.  Like gelatin, you dissolve it in hot water, and then add the sugar and flavoring.  I did this and poured it onto the cake to let the frosting gel.  The recipe said to sprinkle coconut flakes on the top, which I did.

Coconut Tres Leches Cake

Coconut Tres Leches Cake, Under Plastic Wrap.

Above is the somewhat unimpressive top of the cake.  It pretty much just looks like white pudding.

Half-eaten Piece of Coconut Tres Leches Cake

Half-eaten Piece of Coconut Tres Leches Cake

But here is the delicious detail.  It was really very good, but very sweet.  I ended up taking a lot back home with me, and couldn’t eat it fast enough.  With all the milks and sugars, it went bad quickly, even in the refrigerator.


Next, I decided to make empanadas.  Empanadas!!  Viva Vegan has several different recipes for empanadas, but I chose the one that looked the simplest: Empanadas Humitas (corn-filled empanadas).  It is fairly preparation-intensive, but I just considered it a practice session for when I get around to making tamales.  You have to make the dough, and then let it chill in the refrigerator for at least four hours.  Then you carefully roll the dough, and cut out six-inch circles (I think mine ended up being five inches.  I just used a round tupperware dish with sort of sharp edges as a cutting tool).  Then you have to put it back in the fridge for a bit longer.  While you do that, you make the filling.  The corn filling is actually little more than corn, soy milk, and spices.

Next comes the difficult part – get the filling to stay in the dough circles.  The recipe said to use 1/3 cup of filling.  I tried that and it was way too much.  So then I tried just 1/4 cup.  Still, it overflowed my dough, and I couldn’t fold it and seal it.  Eventually, I just put sort of a small dollop of corn filling on the dough circle, and forced the dough to fold over it.  Then I crimped the seal with a fork, and brushed on some soy milk to help the dough brown.  (I have been eating the leftover corn-mush filling all week: on crackers, mixed into my vegan mole, warmed inside pita bread, with a spoon…)

I was worried that they wouldn’t work for some reason, but they came out wonderfully.

Trays of Empanadas Humitas (Corn Empanadas)

Trays of Empanadas Humitas (Corn Empanadas).

I wasn’t even hungry anymore by the time they were done cooking late in the evening, but I still ate a few of them.  (How many is “a few”?  I think that’s best kept a secret.)

Empanada Humita (Corn Empanada)

Close-up of a delicious empanada humita.

I didn’t know that soy milk can work as a “crisper”.  That is, you can put it on top of baked goods as a glaze and it will make hem brown and crisp a bit on top.

I can’t wait to make more empanadas.  I used to love going to one of the panaderías (Mexican bakery, literally, bread store) near my work and buy sweet piña (pinapple), crema (sweet cream), or manzana (apple) filled empanadas.  Viva Vegan doesn’t have recipes for those fillings, but I’m going to look around and try to figure out how to make some sweet empanada fillings.  Yum, yum, yum!