Green corn tamales: now is the time to enjoy peak season

| June 29, 2023 | 0 Comments

GREEN CORN tamales at El Cholo.

Tamales, little packages of corn masa stuffed with savory fillings and steamed in dried corn husks, are a common menu option in Mexican restaurants throughout the southland. Far less common are sweet corn tamales, where freshly shucked and ground kernels are mixed with cream and butter and sweetened with sugar, then encased with cheddar cheese and Ortega chiles and steamed in undried husks.

Throughout history, savory tamales outnumber sweet varieties, but even the earliest examples of tamale-making include some sugary examples. Tamale production can be traced back to Mesoamerica, the south-central part of Mexico, as early as 8,000 B.C.

The Aztecs, the Maya and ancient Olmec and Toltec peoples all made some version of ground corn masa stuffed with meats or vegetables and steamed in corn husks. These civilizations revered corn, thought to have been passed down to them directly from the gods. The Aztecs, for example, had no fewer than four different deities assigned to aspects of corn, from the sacred seeds to the ripening stalks. The Maya believed humans were created from corn itself.

These ancient civilizations found tamales to be the perfect travel food. Tightly wrapped in their corn husks (or in some cases, banana leaves), the little food packages are perfect to accompany hunting trips and marauding armies.

An abundant food

Tamales spread throughout the Americas. In Bolivia they are known as humitas. In Venezuela, hallaca. In Nicaragua, large nacatamal are stuffed with meat and eaten with bread and coffee. Puerto Rico’s are guanime and some are made with sweetened plantains. Guatemala favors chuchito sweetened with honey or sugar and flavored with chocolate, almonds, plums or peppers. The Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians have savory versions of tamales, known as broadswords and banaha, respectively. African Americans in the Mississippi Delta turned up the heat, and the resulting spicy tamales are known as hot tamales, a phrase that has joined the lexicon.

What we consider true green corn tamales are usually said to have originated in Tucson, Ariz., where most Mexican restaurants feature them on the menu. Others claim they hail from Sonora, Mexico.

El Cholo, whose famous seasonal green corn tamales feature prominently in this, its 100th-anniversary year, ascribes to the Sonora theory since owner Ron Salisbury’s grandparents were from that region and put them on the menu when the restaurant was founded in 1923. (The restaurant was originally named Sonora Café.)

Aside from mainly takeout operations in Pacoima, El Cholo is one of only a few restaurants in the Los Angeles area that offers the delicacy. El Cholo follows the tradition of only making them during peak corn season, from May through October. According to the restaurant’s operations manager, Dawn Schlegel, “May 1 to October 31 is when corn is freshest and sweetest. Fresh corn has more juice then, and we capture the juice for the tamales.”

El Coyote, the other major local purveyor of the sweet tamales, steams them daily. Owner Margie Christoffersen says her aunt changed it from a seasonal dish to one that is always on the menu. “She wanted to corner the green corn tamale market!”

The tamales are wildly popular at El Coyote, which makes approximately 150 tamales each weekend. Since patrons wait half a year for El Cholo’s green corn, the demand is particularly high. Among El Cholo’s six locations (three in Los Angeles County, three in Orange County) the restaurants husk roughly 3,000 cobs of corn a week. “We make about 3,500 tamales every week in season,” Schlegel states. “On Western, we sell approximately 450 tamales a week.”

Some have conjectured that they are called green corn tamales because the corn is fresh off the cob, not made into masa, or because the included chiles lend a dash of green, but most sources agree the moniker is based on the fact that the husk wrappers are green and untreated, rather than the dried beige ones used to steam other tamales.

El Cholo accompanies its famous green corn tamales with ranchera sauce, although they served them with mole at the 2022 Taste of Larchmont and the 2023 Beastly Ball, just as the tamales originally were presented when the restaurant first opened. El Coyote’s green corn tamales also come with ranchera sauce, but Christoffersen admits she’s partial to melting a pat of butter on them instead, “The way I eat fresh corn on the cob.”

El Cholo, 1121 S. Western Ave., 323-734-2773. Green corn tamales available now through Oct. 31, 2023. El Coyote, 7312 Beverly Blvd., 323-939-2255. Green corn tamales available year-round.

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Category: Entertainment

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