Terry Garcia (left) spreads masa and prepares the tamale to be filled with healthy ingredients.
Terry Garcia (left) spreads masa and prepares the tamal to be filled with healthy ingredients. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Tamal season has arrived, and nothing says Christmas in San Antonio quite like unfolding a warm corn husk to reveal the delicate package of corn dough stuffed with savory and sweet fillings.

While eating all those tamales, did you ever stop to think about how to make these delicious holiday treats healthy? It is possible, and for some people it might even be necessary.

On Wednesday, community health workers with the Healthy Neighborhoods program hosted a “healthy tamalada” at the Mission Library on the city’s South Side, where they demonstrated how to prepare low-fat chicken tamales from scratch, including masa made with Greek yogurt instead of lard or oil. To view the recipe, click here.

In a city with high rates of diabetes and obesity, it is important to help people make better choices, if even in small ways, said Anayanse Garza with the Healthy Neighborhoods program, a San Antonio Metropolitan Health District initiative to educate communities on how to make healthy lifestyle changes.

“There is a way to keep flavor and cut back on the amount of fat used in cooking,” said Garza. “Fat has been used to flavor food for hundreds of years, but it was something born out of necessity.”

In a conversation with more than 30 local residents, Garza explained that historically, cooking with lard and fat is something that people did to survive during a time when they had little access to leaner cuts of meat and better, healthier ingredients. Back when these recipes were developed, people were also doing more physical labor and spent a lot of time moving around outdoors, “so that type of diet also had less of a negative impact on their health,” she said.

For healthier tamales, suggestions include using more spices in the filling, such as oregano, cumin, and red pepper flakes, and putting spices in the water where the corn husks soak before being filled and wrapped so that they can absorb the flavor.

Once the chicken is cooked through, it can be set aside and the vegetables blended until smooth. They then can be used to flavor the meat once it has been shredded.

One healthy chicken tamal is 336 calories, with 11 grams of fat and very little sodium; a traditional tamal has a comparable calorie count, just with more fat and sodium.

Asked if they had ever tried to make healthy tamales, the majority of participants replied they hadn’t but had heard suggestions, including substituting canola and olive oil for lard, and not putting any meat as a filling.

“I came here to get a recipe to try because I am not used to making them any other way other than how I know,” said Sonia Cordova, who attended the demonstration. “It is good to try to add things that are better into [your diet], and even if I don’t do it all the time, at least I can try it.”

And getting people to try new recipes and different foods is a principal aim of the Healthy Neighborhoods cooking programs.

“We have to train our mouths to taste different flavors that we” might not be used to or comfortable with, Garza said, just before participants began unwrapping the first tamales to taste. “We often eat with our eyes, and don’t pay enough attention to flavor.”

The tamales were filled with shredded chicken cooked with tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and other vegetables and spices.

“It tastes delicious,” said Mary Moreno. “I guess I didn’t know what to expect, but it didn’t taste bad. I would eat it again.”

When Rivard Report staff members unwrapped the healthy tamales, one was easily removed from its husk, while the other refused to come out in one piece. But this is something Garza warned about.

“Sometimes our tamales don’t come out how we want them to,” she said, “so we just have to try the recipe again until we get it right, same as before.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.