Tamales in Oaxaca City
Every morning, her smooth face, her fresh white apron, and her metal cart stand vigilant in the Zócalo, the central square. Her name is Rosario, and for the past eight years, she’s dutifully guarded this post from 6:30-10:30 a.m., seven days a week.
Unlike other vendors, she doesn’t need to hawk her services; for her, patrons jostle, anxiously awaiting their breakfast of tamales. I am one of them.
These heavenly wedges consist of masa (corn dough) and lard, plus meat (in this case, chicken) and sauce (in this case, delicious), wrapped and steamed in either a corn husk or a banana leaf. Or they’re placed snugly inside a bolillo (bread roll) to create a torta de tamal, a simple but filling carb-on-carb delight.
Rosario offers three sauces: mole—decadent, with more than a dozen spices and chilis; salsa verde—spicy and tomatillo-based; or rajas—made with strips of roasted poblano peppers. I choose the mole because I always choose the mole. Oaxaca is famous for no less than seven varieties of mole. Rosario usually uses coloradito or rojo. The sauce is reddish-brown and rich, with hints of chocolate and cinnamon.
Protesters, another of Oaxaca’s specialties, march behind us. Shoe shiners loudly settle their stools. Wheels rattle, birds sing, but none of it distracts me or my fellow tamale pilgrims from our goal.
Rosario grabs a bolillo and scoops out the innards, making room for what really matters: one of the more than 150 tamales she labored over for hours yesterday afternoon. Then she reaches into the cart. As she puts together my order, deftly removing the leaf before depositing the tamale into the roll, she is unwrapping the best kind of gift—the kind you can eat. Steam pours off the mélange of corn and chicken and bread and sauce, floating away into the cool highland air.
Hurry up, I tell myself as I shuffle my coins, trying to determine which combination will get me the torta de tamal the fastest. But Rosario doesn’t even notice the delay. She’s already taking the next eager customer’s order. Finally, I find the right coins: the equivalent of 60 cents.