These Christmas tamales with pork and ancho chiles are made every year in the home of Familia Kitchen’s social media director Angela Pagán. Angela, her grandmother Nanni, and mom crowd into the kitchen to make their family-famous recipe for these masa-stuffed delicacies for their familia’s Navidad feast.
“In my 25 years of life there has not been a single year I did not have these tamales,” says Angela. ”These tamales were and will continue to only be made on Christmas Eve, Noche Buena. We do not make them one day sooner.”
This Christmas Eve, the traditional tamales will again be prepared—but only by Angela and her mother. They lost Nanni this fall after a brief illness and miss her beyond words. Nanni had just celebrated her 86th birthday this past June.
Though still grieving, Angela and her mother plan to honor Nanni’s life and legacy by going into their kitchen as they have every Christmas Eve and making Nanni’s recipe in her honor, says Angela.
Nanni would have liked that.
Her grandmother was the family cocinera, known for her magical way with so many traditional Mexican dishes. Nanni has been cooking for her family since she was a small child, says Angela. “My grandma was born and raised in Linares, Nuevo León, but her adult life was spent in Monterrey. As the oldest of 10, she left school at a very, very young age to help raise her nine siblings. She learned to master traditional, homemade meals. Everyone always looked to her as a mom, a caregiver.
”Nanni showed her love by feeding you,” says Angela.
“My Nanni and my mom have made these tamales my entire life. I asked my mom and she said the same applies to her. Nanni made them by herself, until my mom was older and started helping. Then I came along and started getting my hands dirty, too.”
“Tamales Are a Labor of Love”
”At the center of Mexico’s culinary history we find corn, and if you look a little closer, you’ll see the sacred bond that ancient cultures in Mesoamerica created between their gods, maiz and tamales,” writes Emilly Olivares in her Familia Kitchen report on the history of tamales and other masa-filled dishes. “Delicious, filling and as prized today as they were by our Mesoamerican ancestors, tamales are one of defining dishes in comida Latina … Most recipes follow the same three-part formula: savory meat filling + corn-based dough + corn husk or banana leaf wrapping.”
Nanni’s recipe stays true to this tamales trinity with its pork and chiles filling, corn flour masa, and corn husk wrapping. The result is memorably special, says Angela. She and her family look forward all year long to feasting on Nanni’s tamales on Christmas Eve—everyone together.
“The simplest way to explain why these tamales are so special is: They’re a labor of love,” says Angela. “All the work we put into making them for our family each year. The ritual of making these tamales has always been reserved for that day alone. I think that’s part of what makes this dish stand out above others for me and my family.”
Yes, the ritual must continue, says Angela. Of course. For all the traditional reasons tamales are made—and one bittersweet new one.
This year, next year and forever: ”we will be making them on Christmas Eve, and we will be thinking of Nanni the whole time,” says Angela.
”She’s always there with us when we make them, and she always will be. My mom and I will continue making this recipe every year because it’s a piece of Nanni that is still with us,” says Angela.
”This tamales recipe is something she left behind for us and we’re going to keep that tradition going for her.”
A Celebration of Tamales Around el Mundo
Curious about tamales around el mundo—and the many names they go by?
In honor of the festive holiday season this year and every year, Familia Kitchen is honored to spotlight special family-famous recipes of masa-stuffed wonders across Latino cultures. Whether they are called tamales, pasteles, hallacas, humitas, check out these beloved family-famous recipes:
• Luis’ Guatemalan tamales;
• Liliana’s Venezuelan beef, pork and chicken hallacas;
• Michelle and Pat’s Puerto Rican yuca, plantain, green bananas & pork pasteles;
• Doña Paula’s Belizean tamales;
• Lisa’s Panamanian chicken & pork tamales
• We even celebrate legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s favorite red pork tamales!
If you want to go deeper, check out our history of tamales and corn in Mexico and across Latinx cultures, and Angela’s culinary inquiry into why so many Mexican families eat tamales every Candelaria feast on February 2!