Rick Bayless calls these Juchitán-style tamales, which is a word I love to say: “hoochie-TAHN.” Juchitán is a city located in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca (also fun to say: wah-HOCK-ah). It’s a town known for food, art, cross-dressing and indigenous languages. Don’t ask me about the third thing, it’s a long story…Mrs. Pastry will tell you all about it if you ask her, she was in Juchitán in November on a research project.
The differences between banana leaf tamales and their better-known corn husk brethren are a.) the look, but also b.) the flavor. Banana leaves impart a green-banana-like flavor and aroma to tamales, which works surprisingly well with corn masa and grilled chicken (or refried beans). Here I’m doing a bean version which is the simplest.
The masa in Bayless’ recipe is different from that of classic corn tamales in that it omits the baking powder and includes a little puréed epazote leaf. I can’t get epazote in Louisville. I can get cilantro, which makes a nice substitute, but neither of my girls like it so I omit it. If you want the full delicious complexity of a
hoochie-mama Juchitán tamal, add a purée of ten epazote leaves (or half a bunch of fresh cilantro, puréed) to your stock when you’re making the masa. I suggest leaving the baking powder in for a lighter product.
But before you even begin, you need to source some banana leaves. They come in large, flat packages like this and can be found in international food stores in the freezer section (they’re used in Indian and southeast Asian cooking as well).
To prepare them for tamal-making, tear them into pieces about 10″ x 10″ (discard any stiff stems), then pass the pieces slowly over a gas or electric stove burner to soften them. You’ll see them change from drab to shiny as the waxes on the leaf melt — that tells you they’re done! For about 12 tamales you’ll need the wrappers, a recipe of corn masa and about two cups of refried beans (preferably homemade).
As with corn husk tamales, you’ll want a bowl of water nearby to dip your fingers. Spoon about 1/4 cup of filling onto the banana leaf. Pat it into an oblong strip about half way up your section of leaf and all the way to one side.
Add couple of teaspoons of refried beans on one half.
To shape, bring up the edge of the wrapper…
…and fold it over, thus enclosing the filling.
Fold in the other side and wrap it around the tamal.
Fold the bottom up…
…and the top down.
The tie it up with a strip of banana leaf. You’ll find that banana leaves can be less uniform than corn husks with all their tears and folds. Get creative with your wrappers. As long as the filling can’t leak out you’re doing well!
Steam them for 75 minutes (60 if you’re using fresh masa).
Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes before serving — then serve warm straight from the steamer. They’ll keep very well in the refrigerator for several days and freeze beautifully for several weeks.
Refried bean tamales go great with a little tomatillo salsa. What, you didn’t know you could put salsa on tamales? You can!