Hoboken's Essential Tamal

InterviewLatin LoverComment

Maricel Presilla on Tamales and Zafra:

"Tamal is the generic term for foods made out of vegetable doughs—fresh corn, dried corn treated with lime, or a combination of starchy vegetables—steamed, boiled or grilled, wrapped in leaves. The term tamal comes from the Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Spaniards took the name everywhere they settled in the Americas, and it came to replace many local terms for leaf-wrapped foods resembling Mesoamerican tamales and made with different types of dough.

I started selling Cuban-style, fresh corn tamales at Zafra, when we opened our restaurant in 2000. Today we make about five different types from different parts of Latin America. We felt that tamales were an essential part of the Latin American diet, and one of the most spectacular foods from our part of the world. It was inconceivable to open a Cuban-Latino restaurant without tamales.   

Traditionally, tamales are festive foods, prepared at home by whole families for important occasions and feast days. They are serious ritual foods. Savvy street food vendors have incorporated the making and selling of tamales into their repertoire, but they are not necessarily considered street foods per se. But in Latin America, there is a tenuous line between street food and home cooking. I do remember a particular tamal vendor from my hometown Santiago de Cuba, a wiry black man, with skin like onyx, who sold piping hot fresh corn tamales from two large cans balanced at both ends of a long wooden pole."

"I never change my recipes to suit costumers’ taste. But sometimes it is necessary because key ingredients, like corn, have different tastes or textures here in the U.S. Cuban fresh corn is starchy, with very little sweetness. North American corn tends to be more watery and way sweeter. I decided not to work against the sweetness of the corn, but rather use it as an element of flavor. The end result is Cuban-style tamales, not exact copies of the tamales typical of my hometown, called ayacas. 

Among my favorite customers is a couple who started coming to Zafra at least three times a week since we first opened our doors in 2000. He is a musician, and she is a talented artist, who gave us three paintings of Zafra as a gift for being her favorite restaurant of all times. Another loyal customer whom we love is Natalie Morales of NBC’s The Today Show. Her husband took our rice and beans to her at the Hoboken hospital, where she gave birth to her youngest son. Recently she invited me on to the show."

301 Willow Ave
Hoboken, NJ 07030


Photos by Andrzej Bialuski.