Manuel Perez, an employee at Ontario Mini Market, holds up one of the shop’s popular tamales. Although the business sells the tamales made from scratch year-round, the dish is most popular around Christmas. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – Tamales are hardly ever missing from a Mexican family’s table on Christmas.

“It’s the most traditional thing we eat,” said Jessica Juarez, her arms elbow-deep in a giant vat of corn dough at Ontario Mini Market.

The market at 401 S. Oregon St. sells tamales year-round, but sales ramp up this time of year with 20 to 30 dozen tamales sold daily as the holiday nears, said Angel Perez, the shop’s co-owner.

Juarez learned to make them from the women in her family. She won’t share the secret, but the chopped onions on the table give a clue as to at least one of the ingredients.

It’s laborious work, she said, as she mixed the corn dough by hand and employee Alejandro Franco added water to the mix.

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The tamales are made from scratch, said Perez, who opened his business seven years ago. Each parcel of corn is filled with chicken, pork or cheese and jalapeño before it’s individually wrapped in pale yellow corn husks and steamed for hours.

For around three weeks in December the market also sells a sweet variety. The dough is tinged pink and flavored with strawberries and pineapple.

There are multiple varieties of tamales throughout Latin America. Even within each country, the recipe varies depending on the region.

In Mexico, some states are known for tamales that are round and come wrapped like bonbons. In the southernmost state of Chiapas, tamales are wrapped in banana leaves.

“Here we start to lose the tradition of making them,” said Juarez. At Christmas, she said families in Mexico gather to make the tamales together.

But most of the market’s customers are working folks, said Perez, so they don’t have time to follow the painstaking recipes.

Perez said many customers place large orders of tamales ahead of time, especially for the holidays.

The market sells the steaming tamales made by Juarez and the crew, but they also sell the corn dough in bags to make it easier for those who want to make their own at home.

He said he’s grateful to his customers; most of those who come in for the tamales are from non-Hispanic families, he said. He’s seen how, over the years, more customers come in asking for them.

“The community supports us because we make good tamales,” said Perez.

He opened one up, unwrapping the papery leaves like a gift, and used a fork to break into the dough revealing a filling of well-spiced meat.

Perez said for the holidays the dish is usually eaten alongside a steaming mug of champurrado, a sweet wintertime beverage.

At the market’s entry, customers clustered at the door, many of them with bags of still-warm tamales in hand.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

A tamale is unwrapped and ready to eat. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Alejandro Franco, an employee at Ontario Mini Market, mixes water into the dough. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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