Tamales Are For Eating, Not Walking
Of all the sounds you can wake up to in Mexico City, my favorite by far is the distant shout of the local vendor slowly approaching your street, yelling “tamales.”
My partner was usually up before me and would let me know the vendor was getting close as he handed me my hot cup of tea. Like clockwork, I’d take a sip, put on a sweater and head down to the street where I’d order us a couple of tamales. “Uno de dulce, dos de rajas, uno verde, y dos champurrados, porfas.”
I love tamales so much that the first thing I did when I got off the plane in CDMX was have my partner drive me to the nearest tamal vendor. The sun was just rising and the vendors were barely setting up shop. “Ask them how long until they’re ready,” my partner suggested. “Tell them you’ve come all the way from el gabacho just to eat their tamales.”
Growing up in Seattle, so far north, I was desperate for a spongy, fresh, corn-shaped tamal with gooey, spicy insides.
I love tamales and all their legitimate and established variations. I grew up devouring them, especially around the holiday season. Whether it’s Yucatan’s orange-filled vaporcito, the soft, mushy, flat Oaxaqueño, or the carb-heavy guajolota (A.K.A. torta de tamal) from el Distrito Federal.
As of recently, there’s been a growing number of seemingly oblivious people bastardizing Mexican food. Part of me can’t help but think these people do it on purpose to get a rise out of Mexicans. Everywhere I look I see it. It started with Rachel Ray and her “pozole.” Then the Great British Bake-Off’s Mexican-themed week showed that little to no attention to detail was paid to authentic Mexican cuisine when creating the challenges. The closest thing to an apology was from GBBO Judge Prue Leith who told The New Yorker “There would have been absolutely no intention to offend. That’s not the spirit of the show.” Earth to Prue — intentions aside — it was offensive. Now it’s Gordon Ramsey making weird “Mexican-inspired” taco casseroles. And of course The New York Times thinks it’s OK to do weird things to Mexican recipes.
It was only a matter of time before the tamal got its own refashioning. Enter, the “walking tamale.” It was launched early this year by Fillo’s, a company founded by Cuban-Panamanian brothers, Daniel and Antonio Caballero.
Founder Daniel Caballero says the walking tamale is meant for all people, especially Latinx people who are seeking traditional foods with the convenience of not having to cook it themselves. And yet, Daniel adds that while the walking tamale is most inspired by the Mexican-style tamal, the product is in no way a replacement for the traditional home-cooked version. Which is good, because after a thorough, highly scientific taste-test conducted by my Mexican family and I, the consensus was that it could never come close to it. (It took a lot of convincing to get my mom, who grew up in Mexico City, to taste them.) Though we may have a palatable bias toward tamales and the way we think they should be, any company putting the label of tamal on their product should be ready to take the heat.
I enlisted my family to try them with me. We tasted five out of the six flavors: Bean Salsa Verde, Bean Salsa Roja, Strawberry Coconut, Peanut Piloncillo, and the Chocolate Almond. We tried them both heated and straight out of the bag.
“If I don’t like them warm, I’m not going to like them like that,” my brother said, looking at the room temperature tamales.
We were without a doubt skeptical.
The product is cooked in plastic pouches, skipping the traditional corn husk or banana leaf. Even though the product is made in Mexico, it doesn’t remotely resemble the Mexican tamal. Where Mexican tamales are savory and doughy, yet spongy, the walking tamale is bland and doughy, albeit in a dense and heavy way. My mom says it must be because they replaced the fat with olive oil as opposed to lard. They’re vegan-friendly.
“Huele a masa cruda,” my mom says before taking her first bite. She’s right. It does smell like raw dough. “No nos vaya hacer mal y nos empachamos,” she adds.
The flavor in most of them was very subtle, for example none of us could taste the piloncillo in the peanut butter piloncillo tamale even though piloncillo tends to be very sweet.
“This isn’t disgusting.”
“This isn’t disgusting,” my brother said of the peanut butter piloncillo.
“Tastes a bit like medicine,” said my brother-in-law. “It doesn’t have a lot of flavor.”
“I give it a three, at least it looks sort of like a tamal,” my mom says. We all say “awww” at her generosity.
We were all hoping, rooting for even, the chocolate almond tamal. At first we thought it could resemble a brownie in taste and texture. We were disappointed to find it tasted like cheap chocolate. “Sabe un poquito al chocolate de la lechera en México pero del corriente,” says Mom. It got a resounding one out of ten, although my mom gave it a two.
The strawberry tamal made me gag. It had a stronger flavor than the rest and more closely resembled a tamal de dulce according to my fam.
The salsa verde and salsa roja had the most flavor. The former mostly tasted like cilantro and the salsa roja had a tiny kick. The beans were found throughout the masa, instead of as filling. But just because there was flavor doesn’t mean they were good. “It’s like sour, or am I tripping?” said my brother, “I just don’t like it.”
All in all, none of the tamales got more than a six from anyone in my family. The salsa verde and roja were the only tamales to receive fives and sixes from my mom, sister, and brother-in-law.
The only person who said it could maybe pass for a tamale if he bought them on the street without knowing any better was my dad. He’d just got home from work when he tried them. “Con hambre todo se come,” he jokes, while munching away at the walking tamales. Spoken like a true Mexican.
Apparently, the walking tamale is doing really well on the market, according to Daniel, who insists that he eats them almost daily. I find that hard to believe. If they are geared toward Latinx people, I’m not sure how many of us are headed to Whole Foods for tamales instead of the nearest Mexican store. The most accurate label to describe them is right on the packaging; they’re corn bars. I’m OK with calling them that. I’m not OK with bestowing upon them the title of tamales.
“It’s bad representation,” said my sister. She had a point. I worry for the clueless gringo who grabs this at their local store and either loves it or hates it. There’s no win, win situation here.
I have a feeling some of the foremost Mexicans on Twitter would agree, per this Twitter thread.
The founder assures me that it’s for people who don’t have time to cook their own tamales, those on-the-go who want something tasty and nutritious. I don’t think these are tasty. And even if it is convenient, the traditional tamal, which is packaged in a literal, compostable leaf and is also edible while on-the-go, seems pretty convenient to me.
But by far the best thing about real tamales is that you eat them fresh, when they’re still steaming. The walking tamale has a shelf life of two years. The only thing that should be walking about a tamal is the person hauling them around while yelling “tamales.”
My advice to anyone thinking about trying the walking tamale is to find your local vendor, buy two dozen and freeze your leftovers for a convenient meal later. Take it from my family and me, we’ve been conveniently eating tamales since we first came to the U.S. from Mexico more than 20 years ago.
Agueda Pacheco Flores is a burned-out journalist in Seattle. She prefers to write about love, Mexican-American culture, and life as a Latina in the Pacific Northwest. Find her on Twitter @AguedaPachecOH