Photo: Ajna Jai / Contributor
Food is memory at every level, from emotional to visceral, and my early memories of spending Christmas in North America as a young immigrant were all about a desire to assimilate.
Having spent many initial years in Canada, fresh pine trees with twinkling lights, snowflakes and American chocolates would delight my young children. Roasted ham or leg of lamb became holiday dishes to show our kids that, yes, we belonged here, too!
We moved to Texas in the early ’90s and happily traded the chilling majesty of the Canadian Rockies for warm flatlands. But what really made me fall in love with Texas was the cultural diversity and the warmth of its people. One of my best holiday food memories of living here in Houston is the delectable Guatemalan tamales I received every Christmas Eve at my first restaurant, Indika.
Twenty years ago, when I opened Indika, my team comprised of a diverse group of cooks from Americans to Indians to South and Central Americans. One such cook was a young man by the name of Juan Velasquez. Although Juan was a passionate home cook, Indika was his first job as a professional cook, but he’d never let anyone see that. Paying careful attention to my detailed instructions as I was teaching the whole team, he learned how to make a good dal, the backbone of Indian cuisine. As many of the opening cooks fell by the wayside, he remained the solid trustworthy one, always there, always learning and emerged as the clear confident leader of the pack.
A couple of years after opening, he called me at home on Christmas Eve and asked me to meet him in the Indika parking lot — he had a gift for me. Much to my delight, he and his wife had made us a large container of steaming Guatemalan tamales. Made with cooked rice masa and filled with chicken, pork or vegetables wrapped in banana leaves with spicy tomatillo salsa to pour over, the tamales were mouth-wateringly decadent. My family and I tore into them. After that, every year I began to look forward to that call.
Despite going through so much — from losing his mother whom he had not seen in over 10 years, a serious car accident and opening several successful taco trucks — Juan ran the cook line at Indika every night and made tamales for us every Christmas Eve. After we closed Indika, he decided to move back to Guatemala. I hear he’s relaxing in his new home somewhere in Totonicapán, near the beautiful Sierra Madre mountain range. One of the most important foods of the region is the tamale, first developed during prehistoric times by the ancient Mayan civilizations.
This modern rendition of the traditional Guatemalan tamale is a tribute to Juan and the countless immigrants from Guatemala. Today, Guatemala is one of the largest growers of cardamom and turmeric, and I added those to the recipe. Did I make the tamales just like Juan did? Of course not. I switched out the lard and butter for olive oil, sesame and almond butter and meat for mushrooms. Knowing my passion for vegetables, I know Juan would expect no less from me.