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How Tamales Are Made at One of New York City’s Favorite Puebla Tamal Shops

Factory Tamal chef Fernando Lopez takes us through the laborious process of making traditional tamales by hand

Factory Tamal owner Fernando Lopez noticed that few if any tamale shops or stands in New York were making the traditional steamed masa dish entirely by hand. Even though it’s an extremely laborious process, Lopez wanted to bring the Mexican tradition with him to the city. “The way we make them here at Factory Tamal is the way my grandparents and their grandparents and generations after generations made them.”

Lopez uses white corn exported from Mexico for the ancient Mesoamerican process of nixtamalization, where the corn sits in a solution of hot water and the mineral lime for seven hours. This helps remove the hull from the corn, and makes it more nutritious. “During my parents’ generation, the tradition of nixtamal was lost because they didn’t have time, and would prefer buying tamales instead of making them at home. But when I arrived in New York, I decided that I wanted to bring back my culture, because in New York it did not exist.” The corn is then washed and peeled, and left to dry for 12 hours before it’s ground with stones made from volcanic rock. Next, the ground corn is hand filtered through a sieve to achieve the correct texture — a process that takes about three hours. “You have to have a lot of patience, dedication, and passion for the culture,” says Lopez. The fine and fluffy grains are then added to a bowl with lard, chicken broth, salt, and slowly hand-mixed, and left to rest.

In the meantime, Lopez makes his passed grandmother’s mole. He explains that there are many, many types of mole, and his comes from his family’s culture of Cholultecas. “The mission was to discover what my grandmother did in the kitchen,” Lopez says. “So I close my eyes and try to remember every corner of her kitchen, what she grabbed to cook her food. After trying many times, I was finally able to connect with that flavor, and see my grandmother again.”

After all of that work, it’s finally time to assemble the tamales. Lopez grabs a rinsed corn husk, layers it with masa dough, fresh mole sauce, and chicken, and wraps it up gently before placing it in a steamer.

“I always cooked because it was my job,” says Lopez. “But I never thought that food could connect you to your ancestors. I think food is key to keeping your memories alive.”

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