When I was growing up, I knew the day was going to be special if Mom had Fiipino Tamales on the menu. Out came the fine china, nice flatware, the best tablecloth. To me, the kid then, this meant it was either Sunday, it was “fiesta” time (a town holiday ), or we were expecting guests. No matter. I knew Tamales was on the table, and it was going to be good!
The Tamales, is a Philippine rice cake made with coconut milk and “achuete” (also known as annato ). This rice-based goodie is topped with slivers of chicken, onions, peppers, carrots, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs. At times, toppings would also include Spanish chorizos, shrimps, cashew nuts, all nestled into the rectangle rice cake. Then this delicacy is bundled up in a large banana leaf, wrapped and tied with more banana leaves, and steamed for 12 minutes. It is served as a hearty snack, a dessert, or can be enjoyed as a meal in itself, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Yes, the Tamales is versatile!
I live in America now. But the Tamales memories keep haunting me. Over the years, I’ve made several attempts of Tamales. Ingredients were not easy to come by. In the Philippines, I grew up with coconut and banana trees in our yard. And rice was our staple food. So back then, every ingredient was accessible. In comparison, obtaining ingredients for Tamales in my American kitchen, has always been a challenge.
By coincidence, the week after I attended a cooking class using coconuts, rice and banana leaves, I was invited by a group of fantastic fellow food bloggers to a challenge called “TaytoRico”. The challenge called for cooking a dish that used the three ingredients of : Potatoes, Coconut and Rice. So this became more than just a challenge to me, it was sheer delight to participate in TaytoRico and cook alongside food blogger Jenni Field of www.pastrychefonline.com and her Twitter foodie friends @DailySpud and @TangledNoodle.
Here’s my entry to the food challenge, the Philippine Tamales and a step by step guide of how to make it.
The Philippine Tamales
Makes 16 pieces
Recipe adapted from “Memories of Philippine Kitchens”, as taught to me by Chef Romy Dorotan
1. First, soak 4 cups short -grain rice overnight in water. Make sure liquid covers rice.
2. Prepare: 1 large onion, quartered, 2 small Spanish chorizos, 1/2 cup coconut milk, a pack of banana leaves, slices of hardboiled eggs.
3. Gather the basic ingredients of the TaytoRico challenge: Potatoes, Rice, Coconut.
4. In skillet, heat 2 tablespoons achuete oil*. Add onion, sliced carrots and saute for 3 minutes. Add the sliced chorizos and shredded 2 cups chicken that’s been pre-boiled. Cook 3 to 5 minutes. Add salt & pepper to taste. Set aside when cooked.
5. Meanwhile, the day after soaking, drain the rice, place in food processor and process till finely grounded. This is called “galapong”. Strain well. Take any solids that didn’t go through and process again till ground fine. You will have about 5 cups of “galapong” (ground rice).
6. Combine the “galapong” with 7 cups chicken stock, the remaining 2 Tablespoons achuete oil, and a tablespoon salt. Boil over high heat. Reduce to medium and cook, stirring constantly, till thickened (like polenta), 3 to 5 minutes. Add coconut milk and whisk 1 more minute. Blend well. When cool , spread about 1/2 cup rice over the middle of a banana leaf, cut in a square shape, with a smaller leaf to hold the rice cake.
7. On top of rice-coconut rectangle cake, nestle the following: a tablespoon of the chicken mixture, potato slices, egg slice, chorizo slice, 2 cashews. Fold over the sides, first lengthwise, then width wide.
8. Place seam side down and tie the packages closed, crosswise and lengthwise (like a present) with banana leaf strips.
9. Stand the tamales upright, cover and steam until the banana leaves peel off easily, for 10 to 15 minutes.
10. Serve the Tamales as a snack or a meal. Both ways, it is good and special.
COOK’S COMMENTS: This tamales version is called the Kapampangan Tamales,according to Chef Romy Dorotan, to indicate it is a recipe from a province called Pampanga. Cooking in the Philippines is differentiated by region. Each region and province dictates the type of ingredients used depending on availability and abundance of vegetables, fruits or other foods in season.
*Achuete oil is made from putting together: 2 cups vegetable oil, 1/2 cup achuete (annatto) seeds, 6 whole garlic cloves, 2 bay leaves, 2 ancho chiles, crushed, stemmed and seeded. This mix is boiled together in a saucepan. Allow to steep for at least an hour or up to 2 hours. Strain and let cool. Store in an air tight container. This recipe of Achuete oil is from “Memories of Philippine Kitchens”by Amy Besa & Romy Dorotan. Personally, I make a batch and keep it for other dishes like grilled chicken and the like.
This Tamales photo is the Chef’s version, cooked by Chef Romy Dorotan at the Purple Yam Restaurant, Brooklyn, NYC.
(photos at Purple Yam Restaurant, by Christina Newhard)