Guatemalan Tamales with Chicken

Recipe and photo by Tami Ganeles Weiser Yield:  36 tamales
Prep Time:  2 hours Cook Time:  6 hours 30 minutes

Guatemalan Tamales with Chicken

Patience is a virtue rewarded by some of the great pleasures in life. These tamales, taught to us by the Tita family, are incredible and memorable. The supple masa, balanced with a deeply flavorful mole, is complex and sophisticated. This dish takes about 6 to 7 hours from start to finish, as well as some arm strength. It’s worth every moment. While it may look humble, it is a spectacularly celebratory dish.


Chicken Filling:

2 pounds (3 to 4) bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed

4 cups water

4 garlic cloves, peeled

3 celery stalks, leaves attached, roughly chopped

1 large onion, skin, stem, and root end removed

4 bay leaves, fresh preferred

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns


Recado (Tamale sauce):

2 dried pasilla chiles (see kitchen tips)

1 dried guacque (huaques) chile or dried guajillo chile

2 cups reserved chicken  stock

8 tomatoes (about 3 pounds), whole

2 large yellow onions, peeled, cut in quarters

1 pound (6 to 8) medium tomatillos, husks removed

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 tablespoon canola oil

3 fresh bay leaves

3 teaspoons fresh tomillo herb or thyme

1 ounce (½ a circle) Mexican dark chocolate


Recalo Spice Mixture:

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick, Mexican canela preferred (see kitchen tips)

3 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

½ teaspoon whole cloves

1 tablespoon rice flour



12½ cups of water, chicken stock or strained cooking liquid from the pork and/or chicken

2 pounds masa harina (instant masa)

8 ounces unsalted butter or non-hydrogenated non-dairy margarine

½ cup canola oil

2 tablespoons kosher salt, or more to taste

1 whole large yellow onion, peeled, stem, and root end removed

2 tablespoons kosher salt, or more to taste



40 large banana leaves, frozen and fully defrosted, or fresh (see kitchen tips)

36 pieces of parchment paper, each approximately 9 by 13-inches

4 red bell peppers, julienned or cubed

Kitchen twine


Christmas version:

2 bags frozen loroca flowers, defrosted (see kitchen tips)


 To Make the Chicken:

  1. In a large pot add all of the chicken filling ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the meat is fork tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  2. Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and transfer to a bowl. Skim, strain and reserve the liquid. Pour broth over the meat until just covered. Reserve the remaining broth. Cool the meat in the broth. As soon as you can handle the chicken, remove the meat from the bone, tear into strips and return to the broth. The chicken can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Cover and refrigerate the chicken in the broth.

To Make the Recalo (sauce):

  1. Crack or cut open the dried peppers, then shake out the seeds and snap off the stems. Tear or cut into coarse pieces and place in a large bowl. Warm 2 cups of the reserved chicken cooking liquid and place in the bowl with the peppers. Let stand, uncovered, for 5 to 8 minutes.
  2. In a strong large blender or in a food processor, blend or process the tomatoes, onions, tomatillos and garlic until smooth, in batches if necessary. Transfer to a bowl.
  3. Add the softened peppers and pepper soaking water to the processor and process until completely smooth.
  4. Heat the oil in a large pot over high heat until shimmering. Add the pureed tomato and tomatillos, pureed peppers, bay leaves, and thyme. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and add the chocolate. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
  5. In a food processor, finely grind the cinnamon, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cumin, and cloves. Stir into the sauce. Whisk in the rice flour, and simmer over the lowest heat possible, 45 minutes. (Sauce can simmer for up to 3 hours, as long as it is covered and stirred occasionally to prevent burning).

To Make the Masa:

  1. Combine the water and masa in a large pot over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until warm, then add the butter (in chunks), whole onion, oil and salt. Continue to cook, stirring with a strong spatula, until the masa thickens and becomes very pale in color (like cream of wheat), and a pasty residue appears around the pot, at least ½ hour. Remove from heat and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with foil.

To Make the Tamales:

  1. Fit a large pot with a steamer rack or a pasta insert and fill the bottom with any remaining stock and water to about ¼ to ½ inch below the steamer rack or the bottom of the pasta insert. Lay 1 to 2 banana leaves on the steamer to cover. Cover the pot, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer while you make the tamales.
  2. Place a piece of  parchment paper on a work surface. Fold one long side of the paper over, about ½ inch, creating a small ledge (see the picture). Lay a banana leaf on the paper. Place ¼ cup masa on the leaf and flatten it out. Place 1 tablespoon sauce, then 1 tablespoon or about 1 ounce chicken over the masa. Add a few peppers and any Christmas or optional additions.
  3. Fold the 2 short sides in towards the center until almost touching. Take the long side of the paper without the small fold and fold it over towards the center, Take the last side with the fold and fold it into the center to form a packet. Flip over and tie with kitchen twine both lengthwise and widthwise. (Or use a spare banana leaf, torn into strips). Place the packet, standing up in the steaming pot and cover. Make sure the water remains at a bare simmer, replenishing as necessary, without splashing the tamales. Repeat with remaining tamales.
  4. Cover the packets with all remaining banana leaves. Cover the pot and steam for at least 45 minutes or up to 2 hours.

Kitchen Tips

Banana leaves are available at Latino and Asian markets and some health food stores. They keep for a very long time in the freezer.

Loroca flowers are mild in flavor and are available under the Goya brand and are available at any Latino market or at some large grocery stores that serve a Latino population.

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