"All my friends know that this is tamale season for me," says Christina Ramos, co-owner of La Borinqueña, as we enter her kitchen to watch "tamale ladies" Chayo and Sita make pork tamales for Christmas week. During the year, the market sells about 240 tamales a week. But lately the two sisters have cranked up their hours, because during Christmas week La Borinqueña sells a whopping twelve thousand. Tamale season, indeed.
Tamales, Christina says, became a Christmas tradition because of the labor involved. On the farm, all the steps needed to make them -- soaking, grinding, and mixing the corn; slaughtering and stewing the meat; assembling and steaming the tamales -- took many hands. So tamales became a feast-day food, worth the effort just once a year.
"Tradition" is a word that comes up often when Christina and her sister, Isabel Esquivil, talk about their restaurant and Mexican delicatessen. It's no marketing gimmick: The pair inherited the sixty-year-old market -- founded in what used to be the heart of Oakland's Latino neighborhood -- from their parents, who in their younger days took it over from family matriarch Rosa Velasquez.
Keeping their grandmother's traditions alive is as important to the third-generation owners as keeping the business afloat. La Borinqueña still cooks and grinds its own masa, the ground corn-and-lime mixture used for tortillas, tamales, and their ilk. Using a recipe passed down by Rosa, who came to the States from Jalisco, Chayo and Sita fill the market's signature tamales with braised, shredded pork and a not-too-spicy chile-based mole rojo.
Christina won't pass along the mole recipe, but there's no real secret to why her tamales taste better than those you'll find in the supermarket: It's lard. "I tell people it's worth it to eat lard once a year," she says. The sisters' mantra is "Lard is our friend" -- a slogan I can get behind.
I watch as the ladies lay out a stack of cleaned corn husks next to a mound of coarsely ground masa whipped with home-rendered lard and home-cooked chicken stock. The masa has the texture of a soft, eggy wheat dough, and it leaves the sweetest scent on your fingers. Using a technique invented by their grandfather, Sita takes a wide-blade putty knife and smears a thick, even layer of the masa onto the softer side of each husk. Then Chayo scoops up the husk to place a small mound of pork and dollop of mole in the center of each before rolling it and twisting one end to hold the husk in place. The tamales are layered in trays, to be frozen raw until it's time to cook them in a quartet of steamer ovens. Though Christina is sure her grandmother would be horrified, La Borinqueña now also offers two kinds of vegetarian tamales made without lard, as well as less-heretical chicken tamales.
If you want any for your own feast, call now: December 20 is the deadline for Christmas-week orders, but the market will likely keep a few dozen pork tamales on hand for walk-ins. Call 510-832-1346 or visit TamaleGirl.com