You’re familiar with the taco, the burrito and the enchilada, but have you met the tamale? Central Americans have been eating these steamed parcels of masa (corn dough) filled with meats, cheeses, fruits and veggies since Aztec times.

Sydney got its first taste of this ancient comfort food through Rosa Cienfuegos and her family, who ran El Cuervo Cantina (a Mexican restaurant in Enmore) and La Casa Latina (a stall at Marrickville Markets). Now the Mexico City native is cooking tamales full-time at Rosa Cienfuegos Tamalería, her cheerful shop in Dulwich Hill.

Corn husk
This can be thrown away before eating, or used as a plate. Here, husks imported from Mexico are soaked in water for three minutes, then squeezed out to make them malleable enough to fold. A swipe of masa goes in first, followed by chicken and a spoonful of salsa. One more heap of masa is added for binding, then each tamale is folded into a neat, oblong packet of precisely 220 grams, ready to spend a few hours in the steamer with its mates.

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Manteca (pork lard) is stirred to incorporate air and make it fluffy, then combined with salt, chicken stock and masa harina (the name for powdered, rather than fresh, corn flour) to form a light, stiff mixture that falls cleanly off a spatula. “Whatever flavour you have here is the flavour you’re gonna have in the tamale, so it’s really important to taste it at this stage.”

“Some places in Mexico put the whole leg inside the tamale with the bone and everything. It’s flavourful but also very greasy,” Cienfuegos says. She uses chicken breast poached for a morning and torn by hand. “I’m very picky with my chicken. I clean it well because if I found fat or one of those jumpy veins inside my tamales I’d be very upset.”

Salsa verde
Aka “green sauce”. Tart, plum-sized canned tomatillos, green chillies, chopped onion, coriander and salt are blitzed until a balance of chunky and liquid-y is achieved. The salsa is used everywhere: mixed in with the chicken, spooned in when assembling the tamale and even on the side. Although Mexicans would never add extra salsa to their tamales, Cienfuegos has noticed Australians like to. “I can’t tell them, ‘Don’t do that’. You do whatever you want. Salsa is on the counter and it’s free.”

This story originally appeared in print issue 21.