It’s a cold December afternoon when we arrive at the headquarters of Tamales de Tia Tila in San Gabriel Etla, about 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Knocking on the door, we catch a whiff of spices and corn that the cold wind quickly steals away. But as soon the door swings open, revealing a family with faces half-covered in masks and hands busy at work, waves of warm, fragrant air envelope us.
The tamal workshop is brimming: a man is moving stews, a woman pressing dough, an older woman laying corn husks and banana leaves on one of the many tables. Everyone’s movements are so precise and focused that we feel guilty for intruding. But that feeling fades away when a young girl waves us in and brings over a cup of hot coffee. We’re now a part of this rhythmic culinary dance.
Wrapped in either a corn husk or a banana leaf, a tamal is a sort of corn dough “cake” filled with all kinds of things, from chicken to fruit. The first written references to tamales can be found in ancient Mexica (Aztec) and Mayan codices, which outline how they were both prepared and consumed on a wide scale during celebrations, particularly religious ones, like fertility ceremonies or harvest rituals. The celebratory nature of tamales remains to this day: They are widely consumed throughout the winter holidays, during the Day of the Dead and at christenings, funerals and many other celebrations, both religious and secular.
Although the tamal is popular across Central America, it’s a quintessentially Mexican dish; there is no other place in the world with more tamal recipes than Mexico, where there are at least 500 different documented versions.
And within this wide world of tamales, those from Oaxaca are some of the most popular in the country. “Probably because Oaxacan tamales are complex and simple at the same time,” says Hernán Cano, 55, one of the many family members powering Tamales de Tia Tila, a long-standing and beloved source of tamales in the city. “The fillings have a universe of flavors, but they are still wrapped in a humble piece of corn husk.”
“The fillings have a universe of flavors, but they are still wrapped in a humble piece of corn husk.”
The family business has been around since 1930, when Helena Santiago started selling her tamales in the improvised open-air market located where Mercado Benito Juárez now stands, in Oaxaca City’s historic center. “My mother started selling tamales even before the city had a proper market,” says 90-year-old Domitila Cruz Santiago, the eponymous Tia Tila; despite her advanced age, she is still very involved in the day-to-day work.
Yet it’s 54-year-old María Antonieta Cruz, Tia Tila’s niece and the wife of Hernán, who runs the show now. “Each week we make a variety of tamales, from green or yellow mole with chicken, rajas [chile stripes with salsa and chicken], salsa verde with chicken to vegetarian options such as bean paste,” she explains. “Black mole with chicken, which is wrapped in banana leaf, is particularly popular.”
Other options go beyond the usual offerings and are transcendent in their simplicity. Like tamal de dulce, in which the dough is sweetened with sugar and cinnamon and filled with raisins and chunks of pineapple. And tamal de chepil, where the dough is mixed with a slightly spicy herb found in the Oaxacan countryside and topped with a flavorful salsa made of tomato and dried chiles.
Tia Tila’s signature, however, is their balance of moist dough with well-seasoned fillings. “The flavors of Oaxaca are wrapped in our tamales. We are very meticulous when preparing the dough, since that’s the key of a good tamal. Then come the fillings, which all have to be flavorful and with generous quantities of beans or boneless meat, depending on the tamal. All this is part of the experience of eating good tamales,” Antonieta explains. We couldn’t agree more, especially after sampling the various tamales she has set aside for us on the kitchen table of Tia Tila’s headquarters – they are neither dry nor meager. Watching the whole family work together as they share their life stories, we understand the point behind tamales: They are not about restraint; on the contrary, they are a symbol of generosity, warmth and community union.
The recipes have hardly changed from Helena’s time – generations of clients, our family included, have stayed loyal thanks to their consistency. “I took over the business when my mother passed away,” recalls Tia Tila. “I treasure her recipes, even the ones we no longer make for environmental reasons.” She’s referring to the very special tamal wrapped in maguey leaves that her mother used to make for the celebration of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude). “The tamales looked beautiful, all wrapped in a thin layer of maguey leaf, and the flavor…” she trails off before sighing, “the flavor was earthy, smoky and unforgettable.” Sadly, a dish for the history books, as maguey plants are currently endangered.
It takes a concerted group effort to keep business running smoothly. Back in the late 1980s, demand was so high that Tia Tila needed more hands, so Antonieta and Hernán – who had moved to New Jersey only a few years earlier, in the mid-80s – decided to quit their jobs in the US to come back home and help Tia Tila. “We were homesick and felt we had a tradition to continue and whole families of clients awaiting. Despite the [feeling of perpetual] crisis and the fact that we have to work twice as hard, there is nothing like México,” Hernan says.
“While we were in New Jersey we would spend our days off selling tamales as a side project,” Antonieta adds. “But it wasn’t the same – we couldn’t find good corn or good spices. We would sell them for US$2 back then, and although money was fairly good, we were not feeling it, so we made our way back to our roots.”
They agree that it was the right call, as the business is currently doing better than ever. Every week, the Tia Tila family makes between 800 to 1,000 tamales, which they sell over the course of a weekend at their two stands in the city. “Fortunately, we have increased our sales 25-30 percent during the pandemic. People want comfort food that is filling and affordable, so they call us in advance, order their tamales and pick them up at our market selling points,” explains 23-year-old Jose Roberto Cano Cruz, Hernán and Antonieta’s son, and the fourth generation to work in the business.
Together with his father, Jose Roberto sells Tia Tila’s moist and plump tamales on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. in Mercado Paz Migueles, in the north of the city, while Antonieta can be found on Fridays and Sundays at the main entrance of Mercado Benito Juárez (on Flores Magón Street), next to the flower vendors, also from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
We’re impressed by Jose Roberto’s devotion to maintaining the tamal tradition. “Me and my siblings grew up next to the tamales’ pot. I have literally been doing this my whole life,” he tells us. When we ask about the future, he answers without hesitation: “I want to stick to our recipes and methods. We have attained a good level of consistency and together we are like a well-oiled machine. Of course we are adapting to demand, hygiene measures and new selling strategies, but I want to honor the heritage that made me who I am today and fed me throughout this challenging year.”
Filled with inspiration and tamales, we leave Tia Tila’s warm headquarters thinking about how such a simple dish can spark solidarity, a desire to preserve tradition, and even a celebration of life itself. For 2021, may tamales be with us.