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They come neatly wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf, pretty as a package. Each tamale is filled with a scoop of seasoned meat or veggies, inside a bed of handmade masa, or corn flour. It’s a process that takes three days, including making the sauces, fillings and masa, and wrapping and steaming it all. But this holiday tradition for many is a labor of love, one that Jaime Soltero Jr. has been elevating and celebrating since 2008.
“For me, the special part is that it’s the most ancient dish we have in our culture,” says Soltero, a second-generation Mexican American and owner of Portland’s Tamale Boy restaurant and catering business with locations in North and Northeast Portland as well as Happy Valley. As a child, Soltero recalls preparing tamales with his grandmother while his grandfather prepared the meat. “It’s a way for everybody to be there [at the table],” he says. “Everybody has a position of what they do. It’s definitely for family feasts.”
Unlike the taco or burrito — Mexico’s ubiquitous street food fare — the tamale is a home-oriented dish, much more labor intensive and deeply rooted in family traditions. Recipes differ by region, but the custom is the same.
The approach at Tamale Boy hasn’t been just to crank them out. It’s been to spark discussion about the diversity of Mexican cuisine, through seasonal specials (his menu changes two to four times per year) and casual conversations about the origin, history and significance of the food they’re enjoying.
For instance, Soltero put sopa de piedra, or Mexican stone soup, on the menu at the restaurant’s launch. It’s traditionally prepared by men only, in the river on a Sunday when the women take the day off from cooking. They put all the ingredients into a crevice in the river, and use heated rocks to cook the meal. Soltero says he featured the soup for one season, but it was hard to keep good volcanic rocks on hand.
The latest winter menu features two special tamales — one with adobe shrimp and another with a Oaxacan-style shredded beef mole — in addition to six others from various regional styles. Corn husk-wrapped with traditional fillings are more typical of the Nortena (northern Mexico) style, with ingredients such as tomatillo, chile verde, chicken, roasted peppers and cheese. Tamales from the south, in Oaxaca, include cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), black mole and sauteed vegetables (a vegan option) and come steamed in a banana leaf. Tamales are a labor-intensive dish to prepare at home, but you can bring a taste of Mexico into your home with a hearty pozole, a traditional hominy stew. Here’s a recipe to warm up to this season.
Tamale Boy Pozole Verde
For the soup base:
- 1 1/2 pounds chicken thighs, skin removed
- 1 poblano pepper, diced
- 2 jalapeño peppers, diced
- 2 tomatillos, chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 40 oz chicken stock
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
- 30 oz hominy
- Radish, cut into slices
- Cabbage, shredded
- Sliced avocado
- Chopped cilantro
- Lime wedge
For the pozole base:
In a large pot or dutch oven, add chicken thighs, poblano pepper, jalapeños, tomatillos, garlic, chicken stock and salt. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covering partially. Cook for 40 minutes, or until chicken is fall-apart tender.
Remove chicken and transfer to a cutting board and shred with a fork. Set aside. Using a slotted spoon, place the solids into a blender. Add the chopped fresh cilantro and two cups of the cooking liquid and puree until completely smooth.
Return pureed soup base to the pot and stir, add additional salt to taste. To the soup base add the shredded chicken and hominy. Reheat before serving. Serve in individual bowls and top with radish slices, shredded cabbage, sliced avocado, chopped cilantro and lime wedge.