Tapping into tradition with Tamales Mexico

Posted on April 22, 2021

Cooking isn’t a perfunctory act for Carolina Vizcaino.

In fact, everything Carolina offers on her menu at Tamales Mexico is the antithesis of fast food.

Take her titular tamales, those sweet or savoury packets wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. A batch of her chicken and mole tamales that she prepares for sale at the St. Catharines Farmers Market every Saturday can take five hours to make.

The sweet, orange-infused Pan de Muerto — bread for the Day of the Dead celebrations — is a three-day project.

But considering it gives Carolina the chance to show residents in her adopted Canadian hometown that there’s more to Mexican food than tacos, it’s time well spent.

“Every place in the world has something to share. It’s a very special opportunity,” Carolina said. “That’s how I see it — to be Mexican but to also be Canadian, you have your heart in two places, and love both places. To have something you love, the food, that puts my heart together. It brings together the two places I love. That’s why I do it.”

Cooking hasn’t always been Carolina’s life’s work, however, but hospitality has.

Early in her career, Carolina, who hails from Guadalajara, Mexico, worked in sales in major hotels in Mexico and Toronto. Her husband Luís, originally from Mexico City, worked in the film industry.

Carolina wasn’t in love with metropolitan life despite the opportunity it held for her career, however.

“I was coming from a big city (in Mexico) and this was the same thing in a different place,” she said.

She was even less enamoured with the hustle and bustle after she and Luís became parents. With no family close by to help with child care while the couple worked, the Vizcainos began searching for places to build a quieter, slower life that was still close to Toronto for Luís to continue his work, including on the TV series Suits, starring Meghan Markle before she became the Duchess of Sussex.

They’d been told about St. Catharines and decided to take a family trip down the QEW to see what possibility the Garden City held. There were beaches, and everything they needed was close by.

Carolina could picture raising a family here and pursuing something else professionally— something slower than hotel sales. So five years ago, the couple pulled up stakes from Toronto and made their home on Facer Street in St. Catharines’ north end.

Soon after, she launched Tamales Mexico from a trailer parked in her driveway and tapped into a love of cooking she honed earlier in life by reading cookbooks by Diana Kennedy, deemed an authority on Mexican cooking.

Encouraged by friends to take her food to the masses, Carolina was eager to feed her new neighbours some of Mexico’s traditional foods using Niagara ingredients.

“I saw an opportunity to make food using local ingredients. Tamales is a dish that’s possible to mix with local ingredients,” Carolina said.

It was an enterprising endeavour but rules at the time made it virtually impossible to sell food from her trailer. Carolina could have converted her home kitchen into a professional version but that proved too expensive once she did the math.

She rented a ghost kitchen instead and three years ago applied for a stall at the Niagara Falls Farmers Market. Markets in Mexico are always a good bet for finding great food, Carolina noted, so selling hers that way was fitting.

“When you go to Mexico and visit any place, if you want to try local food, you have to go the market of the place,” she explained. “I’m trying to do the same. If you are going to the market, you are trying the real thing. Everything at the market is delicious… . It’s the best food you can try.”

Slowly and steadily, she began building a following for Tamales Mexico and their namesakes, which are filled with masa, meat or vegetables, and red or green sauce, or mole.

Next came the St. Catharines market, which Luís will help her with this summer once the seasonal Niagara Falls edition starts again. Online orders with pickup and delivery options are also available. Pre-orders are recommended for those coming directly to the Tamales Mexico shop.

For first-time tamal eaters, Carolina recommends starting with the pork in mild green sauce — Portobello in green sauce for the plant-based crowd.

While meaty, vegetarian or vegan tamales are her specialty, she also sells tortilla soup, conchas, which are sweet bread rolls that look like seashells, jars of guacamole and other sauces. Though she has her regulars, she’s still introducing many to her traditional foods and enjoying every minute of it.

“I saw that many Mexican restaurants like to make popular tacos, burritos and guacamole. Many people know what that is,” Carolina said. “Also, to make traditional foods takes more time. Restaurants can’t do it. Making tamales takes five hours. I make them all from scratch. It’s not easy but it’s delicious. It’s worth it.”

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