What I Learned from Making Tamales and Spring Rolls

Huy X. Le March 6, 2013 0
What I Learned from Making Tamales and Spring Rolls

This past weekend, I finally got together with my friend Teresa to cook tamales and spring rolls. Teresa and I met six years ago at some work event. She is from Mexico and is of Mayan descent. She spoke all of five words of English, and I had horrible Spanish, but we quickly became friends, communicating through pantomimes and sometimes interpretation through her teenage son. Through the years, we would talk on the phone in a weird hybrid of Spanish and English.

“Let’s go get some Vietnamese food,” I said, picking her up one day and taking her to Green Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant. “And you should learn to drive. I can’t pick you up all the time!” “Como?” she said. “Drive,” I said, pointing at the steering wheel. “No,” she responded, “too danger. You pick me up.” She laughed.

She loved Greenleaf. “La Oja Verde,” she called the restaurant, completely enchanted. I had never seen anyone enjoy a spring roll so much. I had a brilliant idea. “We should cook together,” I said. “You can show me how to make tamales, and I can teach you how to make spring rolls!”

Teresa also thought it was a brilliant idea, and a year later, I was in the kitchen of her small apartment in West Seattle with two grocery bags full of rice paper, hoisin sauce, Sriracha, peanut butter, herbs, bean sprouts, noodles, shitake mushrooms and tofu.

Making tamales is a ridiculously complicated process. First, we made a vegetable broth using chilies, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and zucchini. While that was cooking, we made a red sauce using dried chilies that had to be toasted, rehydrated and blended. A third broth had to be made. I saw Teresa removing the husks of several tomatillos and throwing the husks into a pot. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Is that the compost bin?” She looked puzzled. “Garbage,” I said. “Garbage?” she asked. She added water to the pot. “Basura,” I said, “are you cooking basura?!”

When she understood my question, Teresa started laughing hysterically. “Garbage! I cook garbage!” She was literally in tears, laughing so hard. “No, chico,” she said, explaining through pantomimes that the tomatillo husk broth helps to give the corn flour a softer consistency.

The corn flour was mixed with about two pounds of Crisco shortening, followed by the tomatillo and vegetable broth. We took turns mixing it by hands for half an hour, then spent another half-hour stuffing corn husks with tamale flour and vegetable fillings. It was fun and exhausting.

While the tamales steamed, we worked on the spring rolls, which consisted mainly of boiling the noodles, cutting up the fried tofu, sautéing the mushrooms in garlic and soy sauce, making the dipping sauce and washing the herbs and sprouts. I taught Teresa how to make a roll. She took a bite and had to call her friends, a couple from Argentina, to come over. They came over, and their eyes lit up. The three of them made spring rolls and ate them, and I had never seen such joy at a meal.Then the tamales were done. They were amazing —  the best I have ever had. I ate several, but Teresa and her friends didn’t notice them, focused instead on the spring rolls. While we ate, Teresa told the story of how I thought she was cooking garbage, and the Argentinians cracked up. We had a wonderful evening, and promised that we would do it again, with different traditional Mexican and Vietnamese, and now, Argentinian, food.

I learned many profound things from this experience. I realized, for example, how easy it is for us to take things for granted. The things we grow up with can be completely new for others. I learned that just because something is different than what we’re used to, does not make it wrong, and that gross and slimy tomatillo husks have their use. I learned that food and friendship can transcend language and other barriers, and that having friends of different cultures can add depth and richness to our existence.

Or, you know, whatever, I just didn’t want to talk about pregnancy and placentas this week, all right?

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