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With Tamales, Masa Makes the Meal

Masters of the craft are happy to part with their tasty treats -- but not their secrets for preparing the ground corn.

November 13, 2005|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

It's a matter of masa.

Ask any vendor at the inaugural Los Angeles International Tamale Festival -- the difference between a moist and flavorful tamale and a tired and dry tamale is how you prepare the ground corn.

Some say it's all about adding stock. Others say the key is rendered pork fat. But for most, how you enhance the masa is a guarded family secret.

"Eleven herbs and spices. Just like KFC," Israel Briseno of Mom's Tamales said Saturday.

Sandwiched between the improbable cornfields north of Chinatown on Spring Street and a row of warehouses, the tamale festival has attracted thousands of visitors and will end at 6 tonight. About a dozen vendors have sold thousands of pillowy tamales made with pork or other fillings -- even salmon.

"We thought it would be a great way to get back to our culture," said Erica Cornejo, one of the organizers. "People eat them during Christmas or New Year's. But a lot of people don't know what it takes to make tamales. It's labor intensive."

Indeed, Elizabeth Moreno says it takes three days for her to prepare a feast. Using a recipe passed down through four generations, the Whittier resident begins by cooking the masa and grinding the chiles before packing the mixture with ingredients such as pork or cheese.

"We're the best ones here," said Moreno, 43, who does not have a restaurant but cooks for her church and other events. Her stall was named "Nini's Tamales," a nod to the nickname her parents gave her.

Visitors Ian and Deborah Dye were sold on Nini's. While their two young sons munched on hot dogs, the pair did a taste test: a green chile and cheese tamale from Nini's and a chicken tamale from another vendor.

"Oh, that's awesome," Deborah said of the cheese and chile. "It's so moist."

She tried the chicken tamale her husband was holding. "That's too dry," she said.

"In all fairness, it's been exposed in the sun a while," said Ian, a transplant from Massachusetts.

The two finished up and vowed to try every stall.

"We didn't get Mexican food like this in Boston," Ian said. "We had an El Torito, and that was it."

Attracting perhaps the longest line of customers was Briseno at the Mom's Tamales stand. Yes, his mother did provide him with his tamale recipe, but the name of the business is intended to recognize all the matriarchs who have toiled away creating the Latin treats wrapped in corn husk.

Only 26, Briseno's fortunes have changed since he started selling tamales out of a trolley four years ago in front of a hardware store in Glendale.

"I'd get into fights with the lunch-truck guys because everyone was flocking to me," Briseno said. "One guy tried to throw a punch at me."

Briseno now operates a restaurant in Lincoln Heights. He's proud to say that Rod Stewart once tried one of his tamales at a party.

"I was told he loved it," Briseno said. "He didn't eat the whole thing because his personal trainer was with him. That's L.A. for you."

For the health conscious, Molly Sedlmeier of Molly's Tamales, from Phoenix, does not use lard and packs her tamales with ingredients such as sockeye salmon, chicken breast meat, spinach, zucchini and mushrooms.

"I wanted to change the image," Sedlmeier said. "I want people to be able to eat tamales all year round."

A customer appeared and asked in Spanish, "You really put salmon in there?"

Sedlmeier gets a lot of that.

"They just have to taste for themselves," she said. "You know why it's so good? I make my own masa. I've perfected it."

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