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Learning to Make Tamales in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

opening an already done tamal
The best way to experience the local culture and its cuisine is by doing hands-on work, and in this case, I did a food workshop and learned how to make tamales in San Cristobal, Mexico.

Today we’re going to be talking about traditional Mexican cooking class, learning how to make tamales in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

In the highlands of Chiapas, hugged by misty mountains, lies the vibrant town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a place known for eco-parks, mountain caves, captivating history, lovely culture, rock climbing, and of course, delicious food. One such delight, synonymous with Mexican cuisine, is tamales.

If you travel to San Cristóbal, Mexico, you’ll find tamales being sold on every street corner. Each vendor has their special way of making them, but the basics remain the same – a masa (corn dough) and filling mixture wrapped in a corn husk (or banana leaf), then steamed to perfection.

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Step-by-Step Guide to Making Tamales in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

1. Gathering Ingredients

  • Masa Harina
  • Dried Corn Husks
  • Filling (chicken, beef, pork, cheese, vegetables, or even sweet fillings like chocolate or fruit)
  • Broth or Stock
  • Lard or Vegetable Shortening
  • Baking Powder, Salt, and cumin to season the masa
  • Corn oil, Avocado Oil, or Cooking Spray

ingredients to make tamales in san cristobal de las casas
Gathering all the ingredients was a whole experience by itself, we visited a local market and it was incredible, packed with food, ingredients, and vegetables.

2. Preparing the Masa (Corn Dough)

  • Soaking the Corn: Begin by soaking the local maize in a lime-water solution overnight. This process, known as nixtamalization, is crucial for flavor and nutrition.
  • Grinding the Corn: After soaking, rinse the corn and grind it into a fine dough. This can be done with a traditional stone grinder or a more modern grinder.
  • Mixing the Masa: Combine the ground corn with lard (or a vegetarian alternative), salt, and chicken broth (or vegetable broth for a vegetarian version). The goal is a smooth, spreadable dough. Well, here, you can also adjust the consistency by adding more broth or masa as per your requirement.

making tamales in chiapas mexico
The Corn Dough has a long history in Mexico, as well as Central and Latin America, used for hundreds of years and is still present to this day.

3. Preparing The Fillings

  • Cooking the Meat: For traditional fillings, cook pork or chicken with regional herbs and spices until tender. This usually involves simmering the meat with onions, garlic, and a blend of local spices. You’ll need about 3 ½-4 cups of filling for one batch of tamale dough. That’s not all; still, there are other alternatives for preparing fillings, including;
  • Vegetarian Alternatives: For a vegetarian filling, consider using cheese, beans, peppers, or other vegetables, seasoned similarly to the meat.
  • Final Touches: Once cooked, shred the meat or chop the vegetables into small pieces so they are ready to be encased in the masa.

closing up tamales on a dried leaf before cooking them
The process of making tamales may look complicated but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be doing them regularly!

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4. Preparing The Banana Leaves

  • Cleaning: Rinse the banana leaves to remove any dirt or debris.
  • Softening the Leaves: Gently heat the leaves over an open flame or in a hot skillet. This makes them pliable and easier to fold.

5. Assembling The Tamales

  • Spreading the Masa: Lay out a banana leaf and spread a layer of masa over it, leaving space at the edges.
  • Adding the Filling: Place a spoonful of your chosen filling in the center of the masa.
  • Wrapping: Fold the banana leaf to enclose the masa and filling, creating a neat package. Secure it with a strip of banana leaf or kitchen twine.

wrapping tamales in san cristobal de las casas mexico
Wrapping the tamales on the dried leaf was a challenging side of making tamales, but you can do it like a local after a few tries.

6. Steaming The Tamales

  • Setting Up the Steamer: Fill a large pot with water and place a steaming rack inside. The water level should be just below the rack.
  • Arranging the Tamales: Place the tamales on the rack, ensuring they are not too crowded. They should be standing up, with the open end facing up.
  • Cooking Time: Cover the pot and steam the tamales for about 90 minutes to 2 hours. They are done when the masa pulls away from the leaf easily.

7. Serving The Tamales

  • Resting: Let the tamales rest for a few minutes after steaming. This helps them set and makes them easier to unwrap.
  • Presentation: Serve the tamales hot. The outcome should have a soft, moist masa with a richly flavored filling, all infused with the subtle, earthy aroma of the banana leaves.

tamales and salsa
It was the best experience I had in a food workshop, we learned about the history, and the instruments and got to taste several different tamales.

My Personal Experience Of Learning Tamales In San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

In San Cristobal, I decided to do a typical local cooking class, and I even signed up my husband and my twelve-year-old. Not to mention, Tamales are one of the most local Chiapas San Cristobal de las Casas foods, so it was great to be able to cook them pretty much from scratch. Ergo, I’m personally vegetarian.

My family wasn’t, and they ate the pork, but she made me a yummy one with one of the local cheeses that we bought in the Mercado Viejo. Below, I have listed a step-by-step guide about how you can make Tamales.

Mercado Viejo

First of all, it started with the woman taking us to Mercado Viejo, I have an entire podcast on that. You have to go to Mercado Viejo if you’re staying in San Cristobal de las Casas.

But the point is, she took us there to start to buy some of the local ingredients and to show us around. It is such a great part of the whole cooking experience because you kind of understand where it’s coming from and the local ideas.

The Process

During the whole process, we learned about corn, the different chilies, how to make the tamales, and how to put them in. That was one part of it.

Honestly, the entire tour was about a four-and-a-half hour tour altogether, Because tamales, the making tamales took a good hour, and then cooking them took another hour. But in the meantime, we were preparing other foods and making green tomato sauces.

Tamales with Moles

Then, she also made a mole tamale for us. So, mole is one of the most traditional local sauces in Mexico. Overall, it is as traditional as you could get with Mexican food.

And the thing is, with the mole, it takes a very long time to make, so she prepared that beforehand. So we didn’t learn that part of the cooking, but then we learned how to make tamales with the mole in them as well.

Sweet Tamales

She also made sweet tamales. And then she bought this fascinating dulce and some fruits that are these sweets that are from Mexico, and they were fascinating.

an open tamal on top of three tamales
Learning to make tamales in Mexico and an iconic city like San Cristobal is a must-do, something you need to try at least one time in your lifetime.

Is It Worth Making Tamales? – Final Thoughts!

My son and my husband were so into it, making these tamales and just the whole thing, honestly, one of the highlights of our trip, even though if I ask my son and my husband, hey, would you want to do a cooking class? They’re probably like, not so much, but when they were doing it, they loved it.

If you think that maybe it’s not for me, give it a shot. They’re usually not super expensive, so it’s pretty affordable to do. Plus, you get to eat a huge meal, and you get to learn about the area. So one of the cool things was from the place where we met to where we were cooking to the market, we got to walk around some of San Cristobal de las Casas, and I have an entire podcast about what to do in San Cristobal.

As a whole, I highly recommend making Tamales if you get a chance to travel to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. It’s probably something that we’re going to be doing every location we go to. That’s how amazing it was.

Disclosure: This blog post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission for any purchases made through the links. Your trust is important to us, and we ensure that all products or services we recommend meet or exceed our editorial standards.

Last Updated on December 13, 2023

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