/ Modified dec 20, 2013 10:33 a.m.

Mexican Tradition of Tamales Reigns During Holidays

Tucson market works overtime to keep up with culinary tradition between Thanksgiving and New Year.

Anita Street Market is a small corner store in Barrio Anita, near downtown Tucson. The business was once a Chinese grocery store, which has for many years operated as a neighborhood Mexican market.

Grace Soto is the matriarch of the family-run market. She says although the tamal is available year round, it’s during the holiday season that people place large orders for their family meals. She says the kitchen works full time preparing tamales and it’s difficult to keep them in stock.

“Everything that we make we use the same day,” Soto says. “Only if they ask us to have a particularly large order of fresh tamales on a given day, then we’ll make them the day before.”

Maria Martinez is in charge of assembling the tamales. She says all the ingredients are prepped ahead of when she comes in for her shift, during which she’ll make more than twenty dozen red chile tamales.

“It’s the masa, the prepared meat with chili, the jalapeños and green olives,” says Martinez.

Martinez grew up making tamales with her family during the holidays and says it’s important to develop a feel for how thickly to spread the masa on the corn husks.

“You don’t want it too thick because they don’t cook right,” she says. “I’m (also) looking at the size of the hojas … if they’re too small, they’re no good.”

Soto says she cooks the meat with red chile herself and guards the recipe closely. She also adds a little red chili to the masa, made from corn milled to a paste, to give it a distinctive color.

“Well that’s from Mexico,” she says. “You have to give the masa that color so you can see that it’s a true Mexican tamal.”

Soto says she’s not sure how many tamales are sold each day. But she knows she, her family, and her crew will be working from now through the New Year and will only close on Christmas.

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