Explore the Wide World of Tamales With Chef Roberto Santibañez

On Location

Strawberry Tamales

The Spruce Eats / Todd Coleman / Amelia Manley

Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.

Roberto Santibañez is one of the world's top authorities on Mexican cuisine. Originally from Mexico City, he is the chef and owner of Fonda restaurants in NYC, Mi Vida in Washington D.C., and is culinary director for The Grill in D.C. Amidst all of that, Santibañez has somehow found time to write three celebrated cookbooks on Mexican cuisine.

In his latest cookbook, Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales, the chef focuses on Mexican street food and snacks, including tamales. "There is so much that I know and that hadn't really been written about— daily lives and daily finger foods and street foods," he explained.

Introduce us to the wide world of tamales:

Tamales are an old, old food from Mexico and they vary from region to region enormously. There's a tremendous amount of fillings and ways to do the dough and ways to wrap them—some are wrapped in banana leaves, some are wrapped in corn husks, some are not even wrapped—they're cooked in clay pots. There's a big world of tamales out there.

What inspired these strawberry tamales?

In Mexico, a lot of our sweets and breads were at one point dyed with cochineal, the red dye. Some sugars and sweet tamales were dyed with cochineal to make them red and pink. That's one of the reasons you see so much red and pink in Mexico, it's one of the colors that was native. I grew up with all of these things that were pink and red, but it's very hard to buy cochineal these days. So I created this tamale with strawberries and I think they look beautiful.

In Mexico, there are lots of sweet tamales. There's the pineapple tamal and the ones made with piloncillo which are brown, there are many kinds. So this is my rendition of a pink tamal that doesn't use the cochineal and it's easy for people to make.

Do you have fond memories of tamales from growing up?

I do, it was the thing to do like once a week. Either someone would go out and buy them and bring them home or we'd go out and get a couple with a cup of hot cocoa or agua fresca. It was always a family thing. My mom still does that when we visit. One of the nights we have tamales, it's a great gathering thing.

Growing up, my aunts made tamales and they would give us kids little pieces of dough and we would play and make tiny tamal. They would cook our little tamales with the big ones. It was a fun thing.

What makes a great tamale?

Depending on the style... if it's a corn husk, more central, northern Mexico, a great dough to me is fluffy and light. A tamal shouldn't really feel heavy in your hand, it should feel light for its size. Tamales in the south are wrapped in banana leaves and the dough is more flan-y, custardy. They're soft and tender, and that's important. The delicacy of the dough is important.

Then, of course, what accompanies them. Whether it's chicken and red sauce or green sauce, the balance of flavors is important. The amount of filling, too. There needs to be a balance—they need to have sharpness and spiciness so that there's a sparkle to them and it's not just dough.

What's it like balancing running your restaurants vs. writing cookbooks?

Writing is about time, and that's something we restaurant people run out of very quickly. It's hard to have that discipline, to have those three hours a day to sit down at a computer and type. To me, that was the biggest challenge. [Chefs are] hyperactive, we're generally very physical people, we're standing on our feet, using our hands, using knives, chopping up, multi-tasking. Then when they ask you to sit down and write it's completely different. Of course, I have a great, great friend and co-writer that made my life so much easier—JJ Goode. He's the man. He translated everything I wrote into real English.

Lightning Round

  • Sweet or savory? Savory
  • Favorite tamal filling? Poblano peppers and cheese
  • Go-to cocktail? Mezcal with tamarind
  • Favorite cookbook? One I use the most is Le Répertoire de la Cuisine (it's more of a reference book than a cookbook)
  • Favorite late night snack? A handful of nuts (with a glass of wine, of course)