Red Chili Sauce for Tamales, and a Great Tamale Book – Recipe

Tofu and Red Chili Tamales
Tofu and Red Chili Tamales wrapped in Banana Leaves

I love tamales.

I love that they are a project, not something you simply throw together for a weeknight dinner. A project best done with friends and family, beating the masa and making fillings and sauces and forming the tamales together, before sitting down to a celebratory meal.

I love the aromatic cornhusk- or banana leaf- infused steam that fills your house as you cook them.

I love that moment when you unwrap that first tamal, like a little present, and inhale the aroma of the masa and the fillings. I love when you are on your third, or fourth and wondering if you can maybe loosen your belt and fit in just one more.

And I really love when I look in the freezer and find a bag with a few leftover tamales that I can have for breakfast. (They reheat beautifully in the microwave!)

Red Chile Tamales TopMy wife and I were visiting the Old Mission in Santa Barbara earlier this year, and passing time in the gift shop I glanced through a book called Tamales 101. I wasn’t expecting much, but to my pleasant surprise it turns out to be a terrific specialized cookbook. The author, Alice Guadalupe Tapp runs a very succesful tamale shop in Los Angeles, and she takes you through each step in great detail, laying out all of your options (fresh masa or masa harina? butter or shortening?) and what effect they have on the finished product. Better yet, she has a ton of vegetarian recipes.

I’m not going to try and replicate all of this info in a blog post, so l’ll just share my version of a piquant red chili sauce. I like a large dose of it moistening the inside of tamales filled with cubes of tofu and zucchini, or with black beans. If you are interested, I highly recommend you pick up the book. Or if you want instant gratification, there is a pretty good visual tamale tutorial here.

Red Chili Sauce for Tamales
Vegetarian and vegan
Enough for at least 20-30 tamales 

  • 4 ancho chilis
  • 2 morita chilis (or 1 chipotle in adobo)
  • 1 dried aji amarillo chili
  • 1/2 large white onion, cut into a few pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic (unpeeled)
  • 4 teaspoons Better-than-Bouillon brand vegetable base
  • One 14 ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  1. Wearing rubber gloves, tear open the chilis and dispose of their seeds and stems. Rip the chilis into smallish pieces. Put them in a blender jar and pour 4 cups boiling water over them. Let stand for 15 minutes.
  2. Place a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, tossing a couple of times, until softened and slightly browned. Remove from heat, cool slightly peel the garlic, and add to the blender jar.
  3. Add the vegetable base, the tomatoes, the oregano, the cocoa powder and salt. Cover the blender and process on high speed for 1 minute. The result should be a thick sauce. If it is too thick, add a bit more water. Taste and adjust seasoning, then use to make tamales.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, November 7th, 2011 in Recipes, Sauces and Condiments, Vegan or Modifiable.

6 Responses to “Red Chili Sauce for Tamales, and a Great Tamale Book – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    November 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    this looks wonderful

  2. Reply
    November 14, 2011 at 5:13 am #

    this is so nice but do it so good and awesome. please update because i am one of your fan. i want to see it.

    Good food and drinks of our world
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    Physical theraphy Blogspot

  3. Reply
    November 16, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    I am not sure that I am up to making the tamales themselves (but oh, how I love them) but I’m marking the sauce recipe for the next time I made enchiladas.

    Also… I just love your logo. Is the guy on the right a cucumber? Did you make these wonderful people?

  4. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    November 16, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Hey Heather – that sauce will definitely be good with enchiladas, you just might need to thin it out a bit. My brother did the site design, and I think he bought those little guys somewhere, but I don't know where ;).


  5. Reply
    April 30, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Because my mom grew up in Santa Barbara we visited family frequently. Trips to the beautiful mission were taken less often and I certainly don’t remember a gift shop there decades ago. How perfect that a tamale cookbook would be in stock, though! La Tolteca was our favorite tamale stop on the way home. We filled a Styrofoam cooler full and it squeaked the entire drive and the aroma would make us so hungry. As soon as we got home the cooler was opened and the still hot tamales were our dinner. Such happy memories.

    But I digress! Your Red Chili Sauce sounds delicious. Probably as close as they come to the wonderful “gravy” from La Tolteca we ladled over our tamales. I can’t wait to make a batch tamales and try your sauce.

    • Reply
      Carmen B.
      October 28, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

      Hi I just read your post about La Tolteca tamales in Santa Barbara CA. I grew up eating these tamales and have been looking for the recipe. I just read that the wife of the original owner (Federico Claveria his wife was Bertha) died in 2011 how sad that without her the restaurant closed. I have been looking through the internet hoping to find the recipe for these delicious tamales and stumbled upon the one listed on this site. I would be very interested in finding the original La Tolteca tamale recipe. Thanks

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