Monday, March 8, 2010

Pamonha - Brazil's tamales

One of the most important foods that the Americas gave to the rest of the world in the years following the arrival of Europeans to the New World is maize (corn). It is arguably the most important as it now cultivated throughout the world, and is the staple food of billions of humans on every continent. Only the potato might challenge corn for pride of place in the gallery of American foods.

In Brazil, the edible corn which we called "sweet corn" is known as milho verde. This can be translated as "green corn." I'm not sure why it bears that name, as the grains are equally yellow in Brazil as in Iowa or Kansas or Ontario. 

The corn plant is thought to have been first domesticated and cultivated in prehistoric Mexico, but prior to arrival of the first Europeans, it was known throughout large portions of both North and South America.

Corn is eaten in a number of ways in Brazil, but one of the most interesting in in the form of pamonha, which bears a close resemblance to the tamal of Mexico. Anyone familiar with Mexican tamales would recognize pamonha immediately, although these two foods have some significant differences. Tamales are made from a type of dry corn flour called masa harina, which is mixed with liquid to create the dough used to make them. In Brazil, fresh corn is grated and juiced to make pamonha dough. Mexican tamales are wrapped in dried corn husks and then steamed to cook them, while pamonhas are generally wrapped in fresh corn husks and cooked directly in boiling water rather than being steamed.

Pamonhas come in two basic varieties in Brazil, savory and sweet. I'm not sure if there are sweet tamales in Mexico, but I'm not familiar with them. Savory pamonhas are often filled with chopped meat or chicken, but can also be made "blind"; that is without stuffing. Sweet pamonhas are generally "blind" but can be flavored with coconut milk.

In my neighborhood in Fortaleza, every afternoon about 4 pm, I hear the sounds of the pamonha man coming from the street below. He rings a triangle as he walks by, shouting out the name of his wares - "Pamonha, Pamonha, Pamonha." In an age in which passing street-vendors have largely disappeared, it's a lovely reminder of earlier times and earlier ways to hear his call becoming louder as he approaches, and fading as he walks by. (Incidentally, his pamonhas are delicious, and only cost 1 real (about USD $0.50) each).


  1. O milho verde é chamado "verde" porque essa palavra designa não somente a cor, mas também o estado dos frutos que ainda não estão maduros; ou seja, neste contexto "verde" means *unripe* - o milho recém-brotado, que ainda não está duro.

  2. There is a Mexican (and SW USA) equivalent of these called green corn tamales. They are in their simplest form, young (not really green in color but in age) tender field corn, taken off the cobs and ground with a little salt and stuffed (or sort of poured) into green corn husks, then steamed. Very good and a little sweet. Cheese and green chile peppers are added occasionally. Also, Mexican tamales are not traditionally made of dried masa harina. Masa traditionally is not dried, it is made from corn (well at this starting point it is dry off the cobs) that has been soaked in lime water (to soften the husks), de-husked, and then ground wet. This wet masa is the traditional start of tamales, tortillas, and other Mexican staples. The dry mix is a recent invention = convenience food. However people still make their own masa or go to the Tortilleria to get masa. Tamale masa is sometimes made specially, and it not as finely ground as that for tortillas.
    Lastly there are all sorts of other tamale variants in Mexico - from sweet to savory, and in corn husks to banana leaves. Wonder if there is a book about these? Or all the Latin American variations?

  3. Sweet pamonha, in São Paulo, Minas and Goiás (at least) can also be done with a piece of queijo de minas curado in them.

  4. Thanks for the comment. I'd imagine that would bed delicious. I'm heading for Minas Gerais in the next few months, and I'll try to track down this version of pamonha.

  5. Eu nao vejo a hora de ir ate fortaleza e experimentar a pamonha do Ceara . Eu adoraria saber se vc tem algum lugar expecifico que eu possa provar tipica comida cearense.

    thnks! bjs Amela from NYC!

  6. Amela - Aqui tem um link para um restaurante aqui em Fortaleza que tem pamonhas como especialidade. Eu gosto das pamonhas daquele lugar. Aproveite!

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  8. Sweet corn also exists in Brazil and is called milho doce, and it does not work to make pamonha because it does not have enough starch.
    As others have commented, milho verde is simply field corn that is "green" in the sense of not being ripe.