History of a Corn Dish
By: MSc. Domingo Cuza Pedrera
Some Indian American legends say that man comes from corn. If we follow the theory that we are what we eat, then it does not turn out to be so absurd that those civilizations that took corn as a basic food were considering it to be sacred and part of man´s own origins.
For Cubans corn is a kind of musical food; it has been the inspiration for many songs. For the fans of popular
Cuban music it will be easy to remember the song of the trio Matamoros who said: “May he who sows his corn eat his pinole” and many others also referring to corn either directly or indirectly.
Tamales! In my opinion, corn attains its peak in the culinary dimension through tamales. This mass of sweetcorn mixed with well-seasoned pork, green pepper, onion and tomato is wrapped in the best corn sheets, boiled and can then be savoured and enjoyed. Its aroma and firm and soft texture are sublime, simply a delight of the Cuban kitchen.
Corn was eaten in Cuba long before the Spanish conquerors arrived. In fact, they were invited to eat with the Cubans and liked the food so much that it was soon taken to Europe then extended to the rest of the world to cultivate.
Corn was consumed as part of the “ajiaco”, a type of soup made with bits and pieces of all types of foods found. Sometimes it was formed into the shape of cakes or in flour (sometimes sweetened, called majarete).
According to a popular legend from a zone named Charco Redondo (in Jiguaní, in the western province of Granma), before the tamale came the ayaca, a mass of ground sweetcorn with nothing other that a pinch of salt, wrapped in corn sheets and boiled. However, during our wars of independence, it has been said that the Mambises (the rebel troops), camped very close to the Mines of Charco Redondo. Their old cook got ill and had to rest and left as head of his kitchen a young assistant who was no more than 12 years of age.
The inexperienced boy prepared a few ayacas with the instructions from the old cook who was resting in his hammock.The cook, an old Haitian man, on having seen that the child had mixed the meat sauce, reserved as a side-dish for the ayacas, with the mass of corn, began to shout angrily from his hammock, “Ta’mal, ta’mal! “When the new ayacas were ready, the smell was very inviting and, after being eaten by the troops with very good acceptance, an Official approached the convalescing Haitian cook and said, “Cook, it seems that the boy´s ta’mal is better than your ayacas, compay!” And so, through the invasion to the west by the Mambises as well as other fighters who joined the war from all sides, the tamale recipe was spread. In between wars, by the time the members of the Liberating Army were returning to their homes, a new way of making ayacas had spread through Cuba.
Although many Jiguaniceros (inhabitants of Jiguaní) swear this is a true story, I have doubts. In Náhuatl (language of the Aztecs) tamalí means boiled mass of corn and in the zone of the Anahuac, more or less where Mexico is located today and where corn originates, they were eating tamales way before the colony. Another version of the origin of this dish comes to us from Baracoa, where some support the story that the tamale is only a variant of the bacán, a traditional dish made with banana and coconut milk.
One sure thing is that you can enjoy a good tamale anywhere in Cuba, be it at a Cuban´s house or buying it from a street vendor. A more refined version can also be found in many restaurants. Although in any regions they could not differentiate an ayaca from a tamal, or use the names interchangeably, it isn´t important; a tamale or anayaca will always be a gift for the palate.