Iris Arbaiza thinks her mom's corn tamale--ground fresh corn kernels cooked in folds of corn husk--would be just as delicious if her mother didn't insist on adding corn silk to the pot. There are more than enough steps in the weekly, four-hour process of turning four cases of corn on the cob into more than 300 corn tamales.
And, with Christmas just three days away, twice as many fresh corn tamales, as well as hundreds of tamales made with corn flour, chicken, beans or pork, must be cooked. That's a lot of hot tamales.
"We're so busy. But holidays and tamales go together," says Iris, 20, a clerk at the family's El Gavilan Grocery & Deli in Arlington. This specialty market, which sells food products native to Central America, will be open Christmas Day from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. to accommodate the have-to-have-a-tamale holiday crowd.
Tamale sales soar at El Gavilan this time of year "because people are so busy. They don't want to do a lot of work for something they can buy," she says.
But silks? Who would be the wiser? Says Iris: "It's just a superstition that they cook better that way."
Her mom feels the silks are an issue of taste.
"You must put them in. They add more corn favor," says Leoner Arbaiza Rivera, 49, whose family also owns El Paso Cafe in Arlington and El Gavilan restaurant in Langley Park.
Both mother and daughter agree on one issue. Nothing can compare to a hot corn tamale topped with a dollop of rich, thick imported cream from El Salvador.
"I definitely see it as a breakfast food with a cup of coffee," says Iris, who charges customers $1.25 each for a fresh corn tamale--three good bites of intense, creamy corn.
"I like them any time of day," says Leoner, who sets aside every Friday afternoon for tamale production. On succeeding days the rustic bundles of corn, which have a one-week shelf life, can be reheated on a grill or deep-fried.
The family has no written recipe for a corn tamale. Leoner learned by watching her mom, Iris by watching hers. "We've just never made them any other way," says Leoner.
But that's not entirely true.
In Leoner's hometown of Intipuca, El Salvador, an afternoon of tamale-making starts with a trip to the corn field. Men of the family gather the fresh ears. The women remove the husks and cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife.
Everyone, young and old, works side by side in an outdoor kitchen. The corn is ground with a stone rolling pin, mixed with margarine, corn oil and salt. Then, one by one, the corn husks are folded into an envelope shape and filled with the corn mush. Another fold produces a tight bundle. The tamales are boiled in water over an open fire.
At El Gavilan Grocery & Deli, tamale production takes a few different twists and turns from the El Salvador method. But the recipe remains the same.
Men still collect the corn. Each Friday it's Leoner's father, Doroteo, 72, and son Jamie, 18, who drag four cases of fresh corn from the back storeroom to the kitchen in the front of the store. That's when Leoner and her sister Bertha Rivera, 45, as well as any other family members who happen to be around, any free hands, take over.
At a stainless-steel table the sisters stand shoulder to shoulder, just as they did back home. They remove the husks by hand and set them aside in piles of either large or small leaves. Silks go into the cooking pot by the fistful. A sharp knife is always the best way to remove the juicy kernels.
Then, technology takes over. In place of a stone rolling pin, the corn kernels are ground in a heavy-duty Hobart food grinder. A five-gallon, stainless-steel bowl is ideal for mixing together the ground corn, corn oil, margarine and salt.
The family has modified the wrap method as well. The variety of corn that grows in El Salvador has wide husks. Here, husks are narrow so more of them are needed to form a tight bundle.
"In my country we only use one leaf to hold the corn and one to wrap," says Bertha, who is now up to her elbows in husks. "Here, we use as many as it takes."
That would be four husks, in most cases. In one hand Leoner spreads two husks. They slightly overlap. She holds them in place with the thumb and index finger. She heaps about a half cup of the corn mixture, which resembles scrambled eggs, onto the leaves. She passes it to her sister.
Then comes the tricky part. Bertha makes it look easy. With a quick double flip from the sides, a fold and tuck, she gives the tamale shape. On go two more leaves. She wraps the whole business in aluminum foil. It's done.
But, that's only one.
The tamales are boiled for 40 to 50 minutes.
Tamale wrapping is a social time for the family. For Leoner and Bertha it's the perfect hour or two to catch up on family gossip or share a song. "When we talk together we don't notice the work or time. It just flies by," says Bertha.
Still, the world of El Gavilan does not stop for tamale production.
At the Friday lunch hour a crowd of customers calls out orders for papusas (grilled, stuffed hand-formed tortillas) and El Salvadoran-style enchiladas (open-faced, crispy, fried tortillas brushed with pureed black beans, topped with shredded cabbage). At the 10-stool counter nearly everyone's main course is a large bowl of hearty beef and squash soup.
"It gets really crazy on Saturdays," says Iris. "Everyone wants fresh tamales." And with Christmas falling on a Saturday this year it may just be the craziest tamale day of all.
El Gavilan Grocery & Deli, Dominion Hills Centre, 6013 B Wilson Blvd., Arlington; call 703-241-0727.
CAPTION: Bertha Rivera, left, adds corn to the masher as she makes tamales with family members, from left along the right side of the table, Leoner Arbaiza Rivera and Jaime and Iris Arbaiza.
CAPTION: Bertha Rivera, left, and her sister Leoner Arbaiza Rivera fold corn tamales.