• Rosa Cienfuegos' Comida Mexicana brings you the tamales, tortas, tacos and other memorable street foods. (Rosa Cienfuegos)Source: Rosa Cienfuegos
Tamale all-star, Rosa Cienfuegos shares the street foods of her childhood – including the dish that makes her cry, every time.
Lee Tran Lam

13 Oct 2020 - 11:39 AM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2020 - 11:47 AM

Ask Rosa Cienfuegos about her earliest food memories and her answer is immediate.

"Tamales," she says. "Everything comes back to tamales, my signature dish."

This makes sense: she's affectionately known as the tamale queen and her husk-wrapped parcels of masa dough are the star item at Tamaleria & Mexican Deli, the eatery she runs in Sydney's Dulwich Hill.

Cienfuegos grew up in Mexico City, and recalls eating tamales non-stop, at every mealtime and at every age.

There were even special occasions dedicated solely to eating the just-steamed dish. 

"We have tamales on this specific day – Día de la Candelaria – which is the second of February," she says. "Every single person in Mexico City will have tamales for either breakfast, lunch or dinner."

The person assigned tamale-making duty would be chosen a month beforehand on 6 January, when families enjoy a special ring-shaped cake called Rosca de Reyes. Hidden inside the dough is a baby Jesus trinket.

"Whoever gets the baby Jesus [when the cake is shared] has to make tamales on the second of February for the whole family," Cienfuegos says.

The tamales at this Mexican deli are even better than what you'll find in Mexico City
When Mexicans travel across the country for your hot tamales, you’re onto a good thing. Inside a real-deal Mexican deli in Sydney.

Browse through her new cookbook, Comida Mexicana, and the husk-wrapped specialty also has a headline role. Even her childhood favourite – sweet tamales – make an appearance.

"The popular one in Mexico City is the pink one, which is [made with] strawberries and sultanas. It's the one you usually get for kids," she says.

The dessert wasn't just brightly coloured and eye-catching, it was child-friendly in other ways, too: these sweet tamales weren't packed with chillies or served with a fiery salsa.

"I wasn't that good at eating at spicy foods and the green ones in Mexico are super spicy," the author says. "Even if I wanted to have a green one, I'd be crying."

By the time she attended high school, she could finally handle the heat. Her chilli tolerance had built up after years of exposure.

"Everything from Mexico, even the lollies, would be spicy," she says. "You can't just avoid it. Even if you want to be healthy and eat fruit, they'll sprinkle it with tajin [chilli seasoning] or salsa Valentina [hot sauce]."

if you do try to skip the chilli, you're seen as "the weird one", she says.

"Food is not the same without chilli."

"So you just have to deal with it and suffer while you eat it," Cienfuegos adds, with a laugh. "You get to the point where you enjoy it – food is not the same without chilli."

The publication of Comida Mexicana is well-timed.

In 2020, Australians are keen to learn about the author's charritos (corn fries), pescaditos (fish bites), tacos de canasta (basket tacos) and papadillas (potato quesadillas), but a decade ago – when her father opened El Cuervo Cantina in Enmore – locals weren't so open-minded or receptive about trying food from her homeland.  

"Unfortunately back then, Australians weren't ready for proper Mexican food. We would get so many complaints: 'this isn't Mexican, I want a hard shell taco!'" she says. "It was pretty disappointing, but understandable."

The restaurant eventually closed in 2013 – but Cienfuegos wasn't done cooking her family's cuisine.

"I decided, that's it! I can't be a Mexican living in Australia, working with food and supporting Tex Mex food," she says. "There has to be someone slowly trying to bring what real Mexican food is. Because the day they know it, they're going to love it."

So she ran La Casa Cantina, a pop-up selling Mexican food (and soundtracked by her dad's mariachi band), which sparked a cult following. "People were even stopping me in the street and calling me the tamale queen, as this was my signature dish," the author writes in Comida Mexicana.

Then in 2018, she launched her Tamaleria & Mexican Deli.

She already had enthusiastic support from the local Mexican community – and other people started to turn up once they noticed the large queues outside her eatery.

"That's how I started my Australian clientele," she says. "They go straight for what they want: 'can I have a mole tamale, please?' And then I see them at the bus stop eating their tamales and I'm so happy."

Her book goes beyond tamales, though: it also highlights recipes for tacos, tostadas, empanadas and other street foods that reflect her Mexican heritage. Tortas (sandwiches) are especially meaningful to Cienfuegos.

"I see them at the bus stop eating their tamales and I'm so happy."

"When I go to Mexico, the first thing is I take myself to is a torta stall," she says.

And instantly, she will burst into tears.

"I will literally cry. It happens every time," she says. "First bite, first cry."

The emotional impact is so strong and overwhelming.

"Because that's a flavour I don't have in Australia or anywhere else. It connects me to everything," she says. It conjures up memories of high school, childhood, friends who are gone and friends who remain in Mexico City.

Where is Sydney’s true Mexican food hiding?
Where in Sydney can you find the dishes you’d normally scoff on the side of the road in Mexico City? La Casa Latina is Sydney's only authentic Mexican street food.

But you don't have to buy a plane ticket to try a torta – browse the colourful pages of the author’s book and you’ll see recipes for schnitzel torta and other variations.

"Tortas are my favourite thing in the whole world," says Cienfuegos. "I'm a weird Mexican, I prefer bread over tortillas. But don't tell anyone, because this is a massive secret!"

During her school days, she would eat three tortas during her lunch break. "They were the veal schnitzel with Oaxaca cheese and chipotle chillies," she says. She shares a recipe for a much bigger version in her book (you won't need to consume three if you make the author's recipe). The flavours remind her of how quickly she'd race to the canteen to buy her tortas, once the school bell rang.

But talk to Cienfuegos for long enough, and tamales will eventually re-enter the conversation.

"I went to my mum's little town in Puebla and I went there specifically to learn how to make this tamale – it's the biggest tamale in the whole country, because you put the whole pork head inside," she says. "I am so happy that I went there specifically [to learn] how to make it."

But she's aware that you can't always bring a recipe back – particularly one that requires a giant pizza oven to prepare the dish. 

"I don't have a pizza oven! How can I make it in Australia?" she says. "It's not the same."

But the tamales de piña recipe (pineapple tamales) in her book is all about recreating a part of Mexico right here in Sydney.

"Pineapple tamales are not from Mexico City," Cienfuegos says. She actually learnt how to make them in Australia, for the North Mexican community here.

"They were out for the sweet tamales and I would give them the pink one [with strawberries]," she says. "They were like, 'no, no, can you make them with pineapple?'"

She said yes: "I can make whatever you want."

After all, she is the tamale queen.

Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos (Smith Street Books, $45).

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Tamales de piña (pineapple tamales)

In addition to pineapple, they are commonly filled with nuts and rompope (an egg nog–like drink) or even made with apple and cinnamon. I've gone for a more simple version here, using only pineapple chunks and the syrup from the tin.

Torta de milanesa con quesiollo y chile chioptle (schnitzel torta with cheese and chipotle)

I often dream of visiting my favourite torta stall in Mexico and devouring this giant sandwich, which is extremely hard to eat because of its ridiculous size.

Potato quesadillas

Deep-fried and topped with lettuce and salsa, papadillas are a delicious vegetarian garnacha that will leave you licking your fingers after every bite.

Sweet tamales

Sweet tamales might not sound very traditional, but there have always been tamale vendors located in certain corners of Mexico City who specialise in them.