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Tamales stuffed with pork, chicken — even strawberries — star at this festival

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Coachella Valley in California is home to a world-famous festival - you know, the one Beyonce headlined a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEYONCE: (Singing) All the single ladies.

SHAPIRO: OK, well, this weekend, it hosts another even longer-running festival...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA MACHOS SONG, "HISTORIA SIN FIN")

SHAPIRO: The Indio International Tamale Festival. This one also features dozens of musical groups like Banda Machos, who we're hearing now - also, lots of tamales.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SCRAPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Juan Carlos Barajas is the festival's culinary director and a tamale maker himself. Welcome.

JUAN CARLOS BARAJAS: Hi, good to be here.

SHAPIRO: This festival has been going for 30 years now. How did it start for you? What's your tamale origin story?

BARAJAS: Wow. Well, it's one of those festivals that we have always been a part of growing up here. And later on, we decided to showcase my father's recipe and my mother's recipe with the birria tamales, and that's how it all started.

SHAPIRO: And last year, you won the trophy for best tamale. It's braised beef. What makes it special?

BARAJAS: In essence, in 2016, when we decided to participate, I knew we had to do something different. So we implemented this birria tamale, what we call the inside-out tamale, where we open the husk, we do a small partition on the masa and then we added the fresh birria right on top of it with a little bit of the consomme - which is the broth - fresh onion, cilantros, pickled onions and chile de arbol sauce, and that just took it. Everybody was...

SHAPIRO: Oh, so you're not baking it in the husk. You're not making the birria inside of the masa.

BARAJAS: Yes, we are not.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

BARAJAS: We're making the masa and cooking the masa by itself. However, we do marinate the masa with the same sauce that we marinate the birria with. So that, in essence, gives it, you know, that birria flavor in the masa as well.

SHAPIRO: As culinary director, part of your job is to find great tamales to include in the lineup. So tell us about some that you are especially excited about having discovered this year.

BARAJAS: OK. So this year, what I'm excited to discover is this 89-year-old lady here from the Coachella Valley. Her name is Dona Cuca, and she makes these Sinaloa-style tamales, which are a little bit unique from what I'm used to. She actually adds a few vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, sliced peppers, olive, along with whether they're going to be pork or chicken. And they're very meticulously wrapped, kind of like a candy-wrapped tamale - individually wrapped. But also, the taste is just amazing. So I'm really looking forward, and I'm excited to have discovered her and being a part of the tamale festival this year.

SHAPIRO: There are almost as many kind of food festivals around the country as there are foods. What makes tamales so special?

BARAJAS: Well, you know, what makes it special - again, it's a recipe that you pretty much make memories with. You know, at one point in our lives, whether you're from Mexico, South America, Central America - tamales are a coming together of families, creating memories, assigning roles to everybody. One person does the masa. The other person handles the husks. The other person - it's like a small assembly line. Pretty much what we do is create these memories of making the tamales, but also it's eating the tamales. And for some families, the cool thing is also selling their tamales and make a little money as well while they're at it.

SHAPIRO: How many do you think you're going to eat over the course of this festival?

BARAJAS: I, personally - oh, my God. I mean, as many as I can.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BARAJAS: I'm probably going to be too busy, but I'm actually looking forward on tasting some of those unique tamales.

SHAPIRO: Juan Carlos Barajas is culinary director for the Indio International Tamale Festival, which is running all weekend in Indio, Calif. Eat another tamale for me. Wish I could join you. Thanks for the conversation.

BARAJAS: Thank you, Ari. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DASHEEN SONG, "DUH FURST TYME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Enrique Rivera
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.