The tamale is one of the most ancient of modern foods, a comestible of infinite variety, inspired kitchen craft, and unifying panculturalism as well as deep and noble lineage. The corn of the Western Hemisphere has influenced a wide variety of native dishes, but the tamale can be tasted in a spectrum of variations from Cape Horn to the Rio Grande. It was initially made of mashed dried corn and water mixed into a dough (masa), seasoned with chili peppers, wrapped in the corn's sturdy husk, and submerged, clambake-style, in hot ashes until done. Later, with the development of pottery, the behusked packages were steamed in pots over boiling water, the prevalent technique to this day. They were cooked as far north as present-day Virginia, where Capt. John Smith described their preparation circa 1612: “Their corne they rost in the eare greene, and bruising it in a mortar of wood with a Polt, lappe it in rowles in the leaves of their corne, and so boyle it for a daintie.”
Back then Tenochtitlán (aka Mexico City) was the place to go for a good tamale, as Cortés discovered when he dropped by for a bite just prior to his ungrateful rampage of slaughter and Aztec enslavement. Among the thousand dishes served in Moctezuma's court, alongside the newts with yellow chilies, cactus fruits with fish eggs, and lobster with ground squash seeds, were fluffy white tamales crowned with intricate bean designs, red tamales slow-cooked in the sun for two days, jelly-roll tamales stuffed with toasted pumpkin seeds, tamales with amaranth seeds and ground cherries, and dessert tamales made with sweet corn and honey.
In its calmest (beef/pork/chicken) state, though, the foodstuff became especially popular. Not so long ago, the tamale was the tastiest, handiest evocation of Latin American cookery north of the border; Ruth Thompson's Eating Around San Francisco (published in 1936) lauds the tamales at Progreso, Jacinto, and Spanish Fonda (S.F.'s three then-extant Mexican restaurants, none of them in the Mission) without mentioning much of anything else, and Diana Kennedy's 1972 magnum opus, The Cuisines of Mexico, devotes 23 pages to tamales and a mere page and a half to burritos.
So whither the noble tamale? Lately it's become as difficult to find on your standard Mexican menu as it was inevitable a generation ago. One reason may be that interloper, the aforementioned burrito, an increasingly inescapable evocation of fast-food charmlessness that only emerged on the scene about 30 years ago, an enchilada wannabe with none of its forebear's steamy, goopy charm and the whole cilantro-tortilla-ahi-stuffed-wrap legacy to answer for. Burritos are quick and easy to assemble, while the creation of a tamale involves skill, wit, and insight. So in the spirit of research (and hunger) I headed to 24th Street — a balmy, mural-enlivened, minimally gentrified several blocks of butchers, bakeries, Mexicatessens, pupuserias, ice cream carts, and markets bright with plantains and jicama, maybe you've heard of it — in search of the elusive tamale.
The first stop, both chronologically and sociologically, had to be Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, which has been schlepping tamales to the masa-starved masses since the Harding administration. There's a great sign outside reminiscent of the greetings gracing the entrances to Marquard's, the Pickwick, and other remnants of Hammett-era San Francisco, and the interior is evocatively tiny, dark, and well-worn, with a contrastingly friendly subattitude to go with it. Unfortunately its titular tamales are dense and ponderous and come to the table glopped in a thick brown sauce of no attendant personality.
A better option is to head up the street to La Palma, a smallish Mexicatessen burbling with good smells and commerce. This is not only a fine place to stock up on canned hominy, yucca chips, spices in bulk, cheeses and sausages, pumpkin-seed candy, house-rendered lard, and every sort of chili pepper you can think of, there's also a counter in back where you can order a variety of ready-to-eat Latin delicacies and freshly prepared masa and watch a team of experts forming tortillas out of corn dough and slapping them onto a griddle for the freshest tortillas you'll ever nibble. La Palma's beef tamales — made from that same preservative-free, daily-ground masa — are elemental in their simplicity: big, thick chunks of beef, a minimal hint of salsa and spice, and, wrapping it up, a smooth, dense tortillalike white corn dough; a tamale somewhat dry in texture, both in the dough and the filling, but satisfying for all that.
The tamale is not exclusively a Mexican treat, of course, as a visit to La Limeñita will demonstrate. This bastion of Peruvian cuisine is roomy and handsome, with brickwork, flowers, wrought-iron chandeliers, and Inca-inspired décor — masks, tapestries, llama art, and the like. In Peru, tamales are served as intricate little appetizers cooked in banana leaves, and La Limeñita's version is a delight: It's on the flat side, like a crepe, with a silky, spicy, almost flanlike masa enclosing chicken meat, hard-boiled egg, and black olives, with deliciously citrusy marinated red onion rings draped on the side. An interesting accompaniment is Chica Morada, a nonalcoholic Peruvian punch made of purple corn: sweet, deep red, with an undefinable punchy flavor and a hint of (perhaps) cinnamon.
Another good source for the multicultural tamale experience is Panchita's, a Salvadoran pupuseria just up the street. It's a bright and sunny place with tropical accents here and there and a counter off to the side where you can order up licuados, jugos, and aguas frescas made from papaya, guanabana, cantaloupe, tamarind, mango, and other exotic flora. Its chicken tamale is the perfect comfort food: The masa is absolutely yielding in texture, with a nice subtle taste of corn, and the filling is wonderfully mild and forgiving and chunky with chicken, potatoes, and tender green olives, like a good, enriching pot pie.
The best place to sample the tamale in all its multicultural glory is Barrasa Market, where you can purchase incredible, freshly prepared tamales from three different traditions. The Salvadoran version features creamy, custardy masa that bursts apart into a steamy, fragrant volcano when you edge off its banana-leaf wrapping. Inside: tender potatoes that merge and mingle with the corn pudding surrounding it, and sweet, tiny green olives, and either chunks of moist pork or huge shards of tender chicken. The Nicaraguan variety is huge and sturdily wrapped in string, paper, and banana leaf, like a parcel from some exotic locale. The masa here is even more moist than the Salvadoran version, even risottolike, with a sensory zap of citrus and spice and the elements. Mingling within its folds are circles of al dente potato, a sweet, deeply flavored stone fruit I couldn't identify, chunks of slow-cooked pork and chicken, and big, juicy capers: a treasure trove of beautifully balanced flavors. Finally, the Mexican tamale comes in two versions. The yellow-husked variety is a savory confluence of somewhat dry pork and white masa not unlike La Palma's, but a really sweet treat is in store if you purchase the white-husked dessert tamale, a blissfully simple dish of puddinglike sweet-corn masa ribboned with corn kernels reminiscent of a soft, dense, moist butter cake. The cashier recommended it with a glass of cold milk: “You'll love it,” she said. She was right. ¡Viva la tamale!