Food Story

This Macon family combines three cultural traditions for a food-filled Christmas

Mario Barragan serves Latin fare at his restaurant, Tzango, on second street in Downtown Macon.
Mario Barragan serves Latin fare at his restaurant, Tzango, on second street in Downtown Macon.

Mario Barragan’s fondest memories of celebrating the Mexican holiday, Noche Buena, involve cooking tamales with his great-grandmother. Noche Buena is celebrated on what would be Christmas Eve in America. It is observed with the birth of Jesus re-enactments, street parties and food that included the traditional dish, tamales.

“Tamales are tasty, small bundles and can feed a lot of people,” said Barragan.

According to the 50-year old, it can take several days to make the hundreds of tamales needed for the neighborhood celebration. He said it is believed that in order for the tamales to taste good, everybody has to get involved in making them.

“Everybody takes turns mixing the masa because that’s how you give the love to the tamales,” Barragan said.

Masa is flour ground up into a grit-like consistency that along with meat, vegetable or fruit make up the tamale filling. Barragan said it takes 2-3 days to make his Oaxaca-style tamales, which use a banana leaf to wrap the tamale versus a corn husk. With this method of tamale making, Barragan fire roasts the banana leaf and precooks the masa.

Oaxaca tamale
Oaxaca tamales at Tzango are made with roasted banana leafs filled with masa and meat. Amyre Markupson Center for Collaborative Journalism

His wife, Karina, attests to the laborious process. She helps to make them for their downtown Macon restaurant, Tzango, which has been open a little more than a year. Being from Argentina, Karina remembers celebrating the Christmas holiday with barbecue, cold salads and breads. She had never heard of a tamale until she moved to the U.S.

“The tamale was a pretty weird experience when I tried it for the first time because I don’t know if I need to grab it or keep it in the wrap, she said. “The flavor is totally different from what we ate in Argentina.”

A total of 18 ingredients make up the recipe, and it took 5 years for Barragan to perfect it. Even after all this time, Karina said she can’t remember all of the ingredients.

“If one day he disappears and I need to make the tamales, we don’t make tamales no more!” she said.

These days, the couple mainly makes tamales for their Tzango customers. The holidays are a fusion of celebrating each of their respective cultures and combining it with that of their youngest daughter who was born and raised in Macon.

“We try to incorporate some of the aspects of our own cultural celebration and then mixed in with what we see throughout the years, in all my years living here,” Barragan said.