Mushroom Tamales
150 Min

Mushroom Tamales

Food is memory at every level, from emotional to visceral, and my early memories of spending Christmas in North America as a young immigrant were all about a desire to assimilate.

Having spent many initial years in Canada, fresh pine trees with twinkling lights, snowflakes and American chocolates would delight my young children. Roasted ham or leg of lamb became holiday dishes to show our kids that, yes, we belonged here, too!

We moved to Texas in the early ’90s and happily traded the chilling majesty of the Canadian Rockies for warm flatlands. But what really made me fall in love with Texas was the cultural diversity and the warmth of its people. One of my best holiday food memories of living here in Houston is the delectable Guatemalan tamales I received every Christmas Eve at my first restaurant, Indika.

Twenty years ago, when I opened Indika, my team comprised of a diverse group of cooks from Americans to Indians to South and Central Americans. One such cook was a young man by the name of Juan Velasquez. Although Juan was a passionate home cook, Indika was his first job as a professional cook, but he’d never let anyone see that. Paying careful attention to my detailed instructions as I was teaching the whole team, he learned how to make a good dal, the backbone of Indian cuisine. As many of the opening cooks fell by the wayside, he remained the solid trustworthy one, always there, always learning and emerged as the clear confident leader of the pack.

A couple of years after opening, he called me at home on Christmas Eve and asked me to meet him in the Indika parking lot — he had a gift for me. Much to my delight, he and his wife had made us a large container of steaming Guatemalan tamales. Made with cooked rice masa and filled with chicken, pork or vegetables wrapped in banana leaves with spicy tomatillo salsa to pour over, the tamales were mouth-wateringly decadent. My family and I tore into them. After that, every year I began to look forward to that call.

Despite going through so much — from losing his mother whom he had not seen in over 10 years, a serious car accident and opening several successful taco trucks — Juan ran the cook line at Indika every night and made tamales for us every Christmas Eve. After we closed Indika, he decided to move back to Guatemala. I hear he’s relaxing in his new home somewhere in Totonicapán, near the beautiful Sierra Madre mountain range. One of the most important foods of the region is the tamale, first developed during prehistoric times by the ancient Mayan civilizations.

This modern rendition of the traditional Guatemalan tamale is a tribute to Juan and the countless immigrants from Guatemala. Today, Guatemala is one of the largest growers of cardamom and turmeric, and I added those to the recipe. Did I make the tamales just like Juan did? Of course not. I switched out the lard and butter for olive oil, sesame and almond butter and meat for mushrooms. Knowing my passion for vegetables, I know Juan would expect no less from me.

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Cook Time

150 minutes + soak time



To make masa:
Step 1
Soak the rice for 2 to 3 hours. Drain and grind in a food processor with 1/2 to 1 cup of water until broken and gritty.
Step 2
Combine the rice with 8 cups of water, salt, turmeric and black pepper in a large stockpot and over medium heat, bring to a boil. Cover the stockpot and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring every 5 to 6 minutes adding a cup or two of water as needed. Continue scraping the bottom of the pan so the rice does not stick to it. The rice will cook and steam and thicken.
Step 3
Add the olive oil, tahini, almond butter and a little more water, and stir vigorously — the mixture should be soft yet fluffy. Continue simmering for another 10 to 15 minutes until the rice is cooked through. The mixture will resemble mashed potatoes and should be soft yet hold its shape. Set aside to cool.
To make the filling:
Step 1
In a large sauté pan over high heat, warm the olive oil, fry the garlic and pop the cumin seeds.
Step 2
Add the onions and cook on high heat for 4 to 5 minutes until golden, stirring constantly, then add the mushrooms and continue cooking on high heat, stirring frequently.
Step 3
Add the black pepper, cardamom and salt, and cook until the mixture is dry and all the liquid has been absorbed. Set aside to cool.
To make the salsa:
Step 1
Preheat the oven to broil. Spread the tomatillos in a single layer on a baking pan and place them in the oven close to the broiler element until the top of the tomatillos has crisped up and almost burned. This takes no more than 3 to 4 minutes, so keep a watchful eye so the tomatillos don’t get overly burned. Remove them from the oven and let cool.
Step 2
In a small frying pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and fry the garlic cloves until golden brown. Turn the heat off and add the dried peppers.
Step 3
In a blender, combine the tomatillos, olive oil with garlic and peppers, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cilantro and salt, and puree until smooth. Refrigerate the salsa until ready to serve.
To make the tamales:
Step 1
Over a large counter space area, spread 6 to 8 foil pieces and top with banana leaves. Place roughly half a cup of tamale masa in the middle. Top with 2 tablespoons of the mushroom mix. Wrap the tamale with the banana leaves on both sides. Wrap each tamale in the foil, folding and pinching to close the edges tightly.
Step 2
Heat a large pot with a wire rack on the bottom with 4 to 6 cups of water or use a bamboo steamer. Place the tamales along the edges, leaning on the sides of the pot and piling them 3 to 4 high. Cover the pot tightly and turn the heat to high. When the water has come to a boil, turn it down to medium with the lid on and cook for 30 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the tamales rest for 10 minutes. Using tongs, remove each tamale. They will stay warm for up to an hour. They can also be reheated in the oven in a single layer on a baking pan at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or in a microwave for a minute or two with the foil removed.
Step 3
Enjoy the tamales with the salsa, pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs.


4 cups short, white grain rice, such as jasmine, sushi or arborio

2 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoons dried ground turmeric

2 teaspoons black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

1/3 cup tahini

3 tablespoons almond butter


1/3 cup olive oil

2 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoon cumin seeds

3 cups sliced red onions (from 3 medium onions)

12 cups thinly sliced mixed wild mushrooms, such as shiitake, chanterelle, maitake, oyster or chestnut

2 tablespoon black pepper

2 teaspoon ground green cardamom

2 tablespoon sea salt


10 to 12 tomatillos (approximately 2 pounds)

3 tablespoon olive oil

10 to 12 garlic cloves

1 chile negro (dried pasilla chile)

2 dried red peppers (like arbol)

1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

1/4 cup sesame seeds

1 bunch cilantro, bottom 3 inches discarded

2 teaspoon salt

20 fresh banana leaf pieces, each roughly 8-by-10-inches

20 pieces of foil, roughly 8-by-10-inches

1 cup pomegranate seeds for garnish

2 cups herb sprigs, such as mint or cilantro or herb microgreens

150 Min

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