Natural Wrappers: Cornhusks, Banana, Grape, and Cabbage Leaves

Having recently eaten the moistest tamale EVER in a diner-style Cuban restaurant, Puerto Segua, I was inspired to make tamales at home. I wondered how hard could it be to make a cornmeal dumpling stuffed with meat, wrapped in cornhusks, and boiled until firm? However, the challenge lay in replicating the experience: inhaling the mild fragrance as you open the cornhusk parcel, slicing the cornmeal that was springy to the touch, and discovering well-seasoned morsels of pork within the moist tamale.

I followed my own instructions on shopping a specialty store (although this time it was a Mexican market), for masa harina or precooked yellow cornmeal and corn. I picked up banana leaves as well. As trade routes introduced new foods across the globe, each cuisine developed them uniquely alongside the abundance in their own countries. As a Malayalee, I am familiar with multiple uses of banana leaves in cooking: roasting fish, steaming sticky rice and molasses dessert, and making other rice-based ceremonial dishes. I often roast salmon (15 minutes for salmon at 375°F) in banana leaves, and thought that if the cornhusks don’t work (or if using frozen corn), then a banana leaf parcel would work just as well.

Grape (Greek and Lebanese dolmades), lotus (Chinese sticky rice with chicken), banana (Latin, African, and Asian cuisines), cabbage (Polish, Irish, Middle Eastern with meat), and avocado leaves are natural food wrappers. Lettuce leaf wraps are used in Korea, Laos, and Vietnam, filled with slivered vegetables, sprigs of herbs, wispy spring onion, a mouthful of steaming white rice, or minced pork.

The use of leaf wrappers or cornhusks is an ingenious way of sealing in moisture and retaining the juices within the parcel. The mild flavor imparted from the husk or leaves lend a subtle fragrance as the sealed packet is opened. Some cooks dab a little oil on the leaves to prevent rice or cornmeal from sticking to the sides, but the moisture generated while cooking acts as glue and usually keeps the starch compacted.

Tamale in cornhusk or Tamale en hoja

Minced pork – 1lb

Onion – 1, minced

Green pepper – ½, chopped finely

Garlic – 2 cloves, minced

Tomato – 1, chopped

Red chili flakes –1/2 tsp.

Olive oil – 1-2 tbsp.

Salt and pepper – to taste

Sweet corn – 3 or ½ lb frozen corn

Ground yellow cornmeal – ½ cup

Twine

 

  • Heat a skillet.
  • Add oil and once it is hot, cook the onion, garlic, pepper for about 2 minutes, or softened.
  • Add the pork and red pepper flakes or a little chorizo (I always like a kick to my food!). Sauté for about five minutes or until all the meat is browned.
  • Lower the heat and cook for 20-25 minutes.
  • While the meat is cooking, remove the husks and silken ears off the corncob. Wash the husks. Dry.
  • Strip the corn off the cob. (To do this, hold the stalk straight up, and using a sharp knife run it down the sides scraping the corn off the cob.)
  • Puree the corn in a food processor and cook for about two minutes.
  • Add small amounts of the cornmeal and mix in thoroughly, until you get a doughy mix. Remove from heat immediately.
  • Boil a large pan with water.
  • Lay three of the husks, overlapping each other, on a flat surface.
  • Add a small amount of dough and spread it in a rectangular shape. Make a small indentation in it to hold the cooked meat.
  • Place some more of the dough on top.
  • Fold over the husks to cover the dough and form a parcel.
  • Wrap tightly with twine – in the middle and top and bottom.
  • Add the parcel to the hot water, and let it boil for 20 minutes.
  • Serve immediately.
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