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Who makes the best homemade tamal in Phoenix?
During Food City’s 21st Annual Tamale Competition, judges determined that Valley resident Elena Bustamante makes the best homemade tamal in Phoenix. Her red chile and pork recipe from Sonora, Mexico, managed to win first place on Sunday at the Food City located at 21st Street and McDowell Road.
Colorful papel picado and five-pointed star piñatas decorated the finalists’ tables inside the supermarket offering a place to celebrate a generational tradition among Mexican and Latin American families that has been adopted by many in the United States.
Tamales — a name that comes from the Nahuatl word “tamalli” — are a Mexican dish with great cultural value due to their pre-Hispanic and Indigenous origin, according to the official website of the Government of Mexico. In recent years they have gained popularity in the U.S. due to the variations in flavors and ingredients in tamales recipes.
“Tamales are an essential part of our tradition,” said Christian Martinez, also known as “El Rufián,” production director at Phoenix’s Spanish-language radio station La Tricolor, who participated in the judging panel. “Where I am from, which is in Guanajuato, (Mexico), every end of the year there are festivities where the family gets together and eat tamales and drink punch. So the moment I do it (in the U.S.) it involves remembering when I was a child and remembering when I had fun eating tamales and part of our traditions.”
Accompanied by their families, six finalists arrived at Food City early Sunday morning with their prepared ingredients including the corn dough, sauce and meat, and began cooking tamales wrapped in totomoxtle leaves (the husk that covers the cob).
By that afternoon, Bustamante’s tamal had won the hearts and palates of the seven judges.
Bustamante had participated in the contest for years, managing to win second place a few times. This year her pork tamales in red chile she prepared with the help of her mother-in-law and her children sealed the deal.
She said she learned this recipe from her mother, who she remembers whenever she makes tamales. Spending time with her mom making this specific recipe is one of her fondest memories from growing up in Guaymas, Sonora.
Six Mexican finalists share a taste of home
The contest was carried out by Food City, a Bashas’ grocer, in collaboration with the Phoenix radio stations La Suavecita 106.7/107.1FM and La Tricolor 103.5FM, whose judges were in charge of choosing the finalists.
During the month prior to the contest, the announcers appeared at different Food City locations in Phoenix to invite their listeners to participate by bringing their homemade tamales to be tasted.
Six finalists made the cut.
Maria Cota, originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, presented beef tamales with red sauce, a recipe that she remembers making with her mother when she was a girl and that she currently makes for the holidays with her family.
“It’s a lot of work to make tamales, but you spend that time with family. As I stuff them, my daughter is tying them and my husband… we are talking and chatting,” said Cota.
Sara Romero, also from Sinaloa, took third place with her chicken tamales in green sauce, a recipe that she created by taking “a little of everything” and implementing the “sazón” of her mother and grandmother.
Maria Lara, presented pork tamales in green chile in Sonora style.
Oraria Estrada, who took second place, presented the recipe for ranchero-style tamales from Guanajuato with a red sauce “rich in spices” that she learned from her grandmother. Two years ago she won first place in the city of Avondale when her daughter surprised her by entering her in the tamal contest without her knowledge.
“My children always really like my recipes and they always want me to make them,” Estrada said. “So I gladly make them because it is a tradition of my grandmother that I really follow. And I make them with love, really. It’s the only thing I give them: love.”
Elsa Guzman, who has been making tamales for 10 years, presented a style of chicken in green sauce.
Food City collaborates with Spanish-language radio stations
Seven judges — including executive members of Bashas’ and Entravision Communications, which operates the Spanish-language radio stations — tasted each tamal, rating its taste, appearance and texture on a scale of 1-10 while hearing about the style and origin of the recipe from the participants.
“All the tamales had a very rich texture. I loved that the different tamales had unique characteristics,” said Martinez, who considered the cooked dough easily falling off leaves as one of the top factors when judging the tamales. “To me, that’s one of the most important things about tamales; that they have that way of falling on the plate (once the husk is removed). Another thing that I personally like is the feeling of the tamal melting in your mouth. That makes it very nice.”
Each participant was awarded the ingredients necessary to make their tamales. First place won a $1,000 credit from Muebleria Del Sol, second place won a $300 Food City gift card and third place won a $200 Food City gift card.
Food City has been organizing this event that kicks off the tamalada season since 2000, according to Susy Ferra, public relations manager for Bashas’ Family of Stores.
In addition to offering products to the Latino community of Arizona for more than 60 years, they organize these types of events inspired by traditions to connect with the community they serve, according to Ferra.
Starting Nov. 15, Food City plans to invite the community to participate in a contest where they will share their tamalada story through a photograph.