You say tamale, I say tamale - let's not call the whole thing off. Tamales are hot with a capital "h" these days. Nearly every night, the phone rings at Zarela, the Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan, with customers asking "what is the tamal of the day?" It might be pork in a mole (pronounced mo-lay) of chocolate, ground hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, peanuts, roasted onions and tomatoes. It could be chicken with a delicately spicy tomatillo sauce. Zarela sells over 500 tamales a week - three years ago, it was half that. To anyone who has ever slipped off the corn husk wrapper of a tamal (tamales is the plural), inhaled the steamy scent of corn and dipped into the tender masa, or corn dough, wrapped around morsels of braised chicken or pork, the appeal of tamales is clear. Soft and fluffy with a hint of spice, they are made to be untied and unwrapped, like small gifts. Tamales, the ancient Aztec meal of corn dough wrapped in leaves and steamed, were once relegated to special occasions, even in Mexican restaurants. These days they are a delicacy for everyday, fast encroaching on the territory once held by enchiladas on menus. Aficionados have favorite web suppliers; savvy specialty shops stock several kinds. Tamales are going mainstream. Once, making tamales was a communal event, with the whole family filling and wrapping, telling stories and singing songs. There is even a word for it in Spanish, tamalada. Today, there are Hobart mixers to make and aerate the masa, pressure cookers for quickly cooking pork and chicken, and aluminum foil and plastic bags to seal the tamales for freezing. They can be flown anywhere, safe in their FedEx boxes.
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