Uchepos: Corn Tamales From Mi Abuelita, May She Rest in Peace
- March 2023
- By Vivi Abeja
- Recipe from Mexico
Her grandmother’s uchepos are simply perfect, says Vivi Abeja of Chicago. Emphasis on simple. These corn tamales traditional to Michoacan are made with just two ingredients: fresh corn kernels and salt. Three if you count the corn husks used to wrap the corn filling before steaming. And perfect, Vivi adds, because her abuelita’s corn tamales are one of the soul-filling, traditional dishes she and her family look most forward to eating together every Christmas and at major gatherings, says Vivi, one of our favorite Mexican-food cooks.
Most traditional Mexican recipes for uchepos call for ingredients like butter, milk and spices to sweeten the maíz mixture. But Vivi, who hosts a Mexican food cook-along Live series on her Instagram channel Vivis_Table, firmly believes they’re not needed. ”The corn in their own juice is sweet enough.”
Vivi treasures memories of learning to make these uchepos from her maternal grandmother, Elisa Abeja, two summers ago when she cared for her. Her abuela, who we are sad to report died this past week at the age of 92, took pride in cooking what she called “poor people food,” in which she’d find the most delicioso ways to use the smallest amount of ingredients in the traditional Mexican dishes she made for her eight children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Food and providing food for her family were gold to her,” says Vivi. “She once told me that she had a family member in Mexico who would go on the streets begging for just one tortilla to share with their family. My grandmother grew up very poor. They spent the whole day prepping and making food from scratch, from the land. It was a full-day process. So, for her, making a meal to feed her children was being rich.”
Food and faith are why Elisa and her husband came to the States. Vivi’s grandfather told her they moved to Chicago, where they had friends and a church community, ”because they never wanted to see their family starve like that. When you don’t grow up with a lot of food, it’s everything. As long as they had food on the table, the family was alright,” says Vivi.
Inspired by her example, Vivi started cooking and selling her grandmother’s family recipes on the streets of Little Village, a traditionally Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, during the early days of COVID. From there, Vivi was invited to attend a community-based cooking school, graduated in the first-ever class, and is now a young chef in the Chicago restaurant scene.
But Vivi’s heart and cooking ambition remain connected to her abuelita’s love of “poor people food.” Starting with, of course: these uchepos.
What Are Uchepos?
Uchepos are a humble type of tamal originating in the state of Michoacan, where both of Vivi’s grandparents were born. Unlike typical tamales, which are made with nixtamalized field corn, uchepos start with fresh kernels from sweet corn. The juicy maíz is sliced from the cob and then hand ground or pulsed in a blender, salted, spooned into corn husks, and steamed for 30 minutes. Vivi’s family likes to serve their uchepos with their family’s red salsa molcajete and a little Mexican crema.
Uchepos are small, so ”each person gets about five,” says Vivi. She loves that her family makes them in enormous batches, because it starts with gathering in her grandmother’s kitchen to assembly-line prep hundreds of uchepos every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I love that we all make them together,” says Vivi.
Honoring Abuela Elisa Through Food
This uchepos recipe is dedicated to the life of Elisa Abeja, who was born April 14, 1931 in Nocupetaro — called “one of the poorest municipalities” in the state of Michoacan — and died February 25, 2023 in Chicago. “She went right to heaven, where she will be joining my grandfather and the angels, who have always watched over her,” says Vivi.
Her family will be gathering this week for her grandmother’s funeral and novenario, nine days of prayer. The day they meet to recite the rosary at her mother’s house, Vivi plans to make these uchepos to honor her abuela’s memory. “My grandmother looked at food in a very sacred way. Our family has a song we sing right before we eat. That’s how powerful food and gathering to eat with family are for us. We always used to sing it when we got together at my grandmother’s house. First, it’s prayer and then we end with our song. It’s beautiful.”
Like these uchepos, all ”her dishes are like liquid gold for us,” says Vivi. Find more of the simply perfect ”poor people food” recipes Vivi learned from her abuela here.
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