Blue Corn Lamb Tamales

Ok, this is a big undertaking. I’ve only done this once. But before I get into the details, let me give you some background.

I came up with the idea for this recipe not long after reading a Hopi cookbook. As you may or may not know, the Hopi (and the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico) are masters of corn. They have several varieties they use for different purposes. And one of these is the fairly uncommon blue corn. If you’re not a fan of southwestern cooking you may not even be aware that there is blue corn, and even if you are you may have only seen blue corn tortillas and chips. Blue corn has a sweet, nutty taste compared to the common yellow or white corn most of us are used to. And it’s not nearly as widespread. Because of this, it’s more expensive.

Now, about the filling. Anyone who’s ever had tamales has surely had pork tamales. Pork seems to be the most common filling, though beef and chicken are also seen. But pork really isn’t seen that much in native southwestern cooking. Ever seen a Hopi herding pigs? I figured mutton seems to be a lot more representative of Indian cooking in the desert southwest. And after thinking about this a while, I thought blue corn, in addition to giving tamales a very unusual appearance, would give a sweet nuttiness that would combine well with the gaminess of mutton.

So I came up with the idea for blue corn lamb tamales. The toughest part was getting the two key ingredients.

The dough for tamales is made from what’s called masa. It’s not the same as corn meal, nor is it the same as corn flour. Masa is corn flour that’s made from corn which has been treated in a special way with lime (not the citrus fruit but the mineral). Masa that’s made from blue corn instead of yellow corn is called harinilla. I looked locally in the Denver area for some place that sells it, and couldn’t find anyone who does. So I had to buy some mail order from a store in New Mexico. I found a couple of online stores that carry it, though the one I bought from doesn’t list it anymore.

Then came the lamb. My local supermarket, King Soopers, doesn’t carry much lamb. They have some lamb chops but what I really needed was a lamb roast. I talked to the butcher and we decided I needed a half a leg of lamb. So, he special ordered a leg of lamb, cut it in half, and sold me the smaller half.

Next, I found 3 different recipes for pork tamales online and took the best parts from each of them and turned them into my own, which I will reveal now. I’m splitting this process into three main parts – making the filling, making the dough, and putting it all together.

The Filling

1 pound shredded, roasted lamb
6 oz. dried red Anaheim chiles (the package I bought was labeled “chile de ristra” and I can only assume they were dried Anaheims since that’s usually what ristras are made from)
1 can of condensed chicken broth (Campbell’s, for instance)
3 tablespoons Mexican oregano
2 tablespoons flour (regular wheat flour)
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
vegetable oil

Roast a half a leg of lamb until it’s adequately cooked on the inside. This’ll take two to three hours in an oven of around 400 degrees, depending on the size of the lamb and how well done you like your meat. Once it’s thoroughly roasted, let it cool to the point you can rip it apart with your hands. Pull all the meat off the bone and shred it by hand into small pieces.

This should give you about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of shredded lamb, but you won’t need that much. You only need 1 pound. Save the rest for lamb curry (recipe not included here) some other day.

Set your 1 pound of lamb aside because it’s time to make chile sauce. Boil the dried chiles until they’re pliable. Then clean them under cold water, removing seeds and stems and anything else that isn’t the skin of the chile. Heat a little oil in a saucepan and saute the chiles lightly, just enough to release the flavor. Then soak them a few minutes in cold water.

Fire up the blender and puree the chiles along with 2 cloves of garlic, 1 can of chicken broth, and the oregano. Add water as needed to make it all blend together nicely. Many recipes say to strain your chile puree at this point to remove any remaining chunks of chile skin or seeds, but I’m lazy and didn’t do that.

Now sautee the remaining clove of garlic in oil, press the yummy juice out of it and remove the rest. Add the flour and salt, stirring it all together. Then pour in the chile puree. Stir and heat to simmering. You now have a beautiful deep red chile sauce.

Add the shredded lamb to the sauce, along with enough water to make it all juicy. Simmer it all together for a while, stirring regularly. Once you’re tired of simmering and the flavors are all mixed together, you’ve finished the tamal filling. Set it aside.

Now, before you start making the dough, it’s time to limber up the dried corn husks you’re going to use to hold the tamales together. You should have

2 bags (12 ounces) dried corn husks

Soak the husks in a pot of hot water for a couple hours or so. You’ll probably need to put a heavy plate on top of the husks to keep them submerged.

The Dough

36 ounces (6 cups) harinilla (also called blue corn masa)
2 cups lard
1 can of condensed chicken broth (Campbell’s, for instance)
2 tablespoons salt
vegetable oil

In a bit mixing bowl, whip the lard with an electric mixer. Whip it. Whip it good. You want it to be light and fluffy. Whipping lard isn’t easy and it’ll take a while if you use an electric hand mixer.

Slowly mix in the harinilla, along with the salt, the chicken broth, and a can of hot water. Crank up the mixer power and whip it more. You should be getting a nice blue goo. Add 1/2 cup of vegetable oil and enough water to get a good consistency. You want this to have the consistency of pancake or cake batter so you can spoon it into the corn husks easily.

Putting It All Together

First, take a break. You probably earned it from all the whipping. Besides, your corn husks may need to soak some more. Once they’re wet and pliable, take some out of the water and pat them dry. It’s time to assemble the tamales.
Take some of the worst looking corn husks and rip them into long strips. You’ll use these strips to tie the ends of the tamales closed. Some people use string for this, which is stronger but not as pretty.

The other recipes I read to figure out how to assemble these had some complicated instructions that I could never get to work. I think the problem was either that I’m not as coordinated as the people who wrote these recipes, or my corn husks weren’t as big as theirs. Anyhow, I settled on a process that worked well for me. It’s very simple and I’ll explain it here, but you can form your tamales however you want.

Take a corn husk and spoon in about 2 tablespoons of dough. Spread this around into a little rectangle that will be the outer layer of the tamal. One edge of the rectangle should be up against the edge of the corn husk. Now, spoon 1 tablespoon of filling in a line on top of the dough, with dough sticking out on all sides. Fold over the side of the husk that has dough up to the edge, wrapping the filling in the process. Wrap the rest of the husk around. Pinch the top and bottom together and tie them each off with one of the strips of husk you made.

What you should end up with is a thing that has the shape of a big Tootsie Roll. The tamal is in the middle and the ends are nicely tied off. Keep making these until you’re out of batter or filling (I ran out of batter first). Then it’s time to steam them.
If you’ve got a steamer, great. Use it. I improvised by putting a little cooling rack type thing inside of my largest pot. Put water in the bottom, not quite touching the rack. Toss in a coin. This trick is to give you an audible signal how fast the water in the bottom is boiling.

Pile the tamales on top of the rack and cover the pot. Fire up the burner and let it all steam for 3 hours. As far as I know, it’s not possible to overcook them. Since they’re just steaming, they’re not going to burn. The coin will shake around in the boiling water to let you know it’s working. If the coin stops, you probably have boiled off all the water and need to add more.
After 3 hours, the tamales are done and ready to eat. You can also freeze them for another day. Or give some to your friends, because you’re going to have a lot of tamales, probably around 40 or 50.

I recommend serving these tamales on top of some borracho beans, with shredded cheese on top.


  1. My question is… I`m living in Japan and found some corn flour to make my own tortillas but it`s not masa. I tried to make tortillas but they stuck, fell apart and everybody laughed at me. I`m a graduate of the California Culinary Academy (1991) And to save face I have to know more about what the I have here. Please help me. I use to live in Ruidoso for 5 years in the late 70s. Thank you, Jim

  2. I’m not sure what they call “corn flour” in Japan. Judging from this web page, my guess is it’s either corn meal or corn starch, neither of which is masa:

    Masa has to be made using lime (not the citrus fruit, the alkaline stuff made from ashes). Unless you want to make your own, which I’ve never done, I think your best bet is to mail order some real masa from the New World.

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