Tamales can range from mild to very spicy depending on how they are prepared. The level of spice in a tamale depends on the type of filling, sauce, and chili peppers used.
What are tamales?
Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made from masa (corn dough) that is stuffed with savory or sweet fillings and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. Tamales date back to pre-Columbian times and were a staple food of Aztec, Maya, and Incan cultures. They are still hugely popular in Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America.
There are countless variations of tamales throughout Latin America. Fillings can range from meats, cheeses, chilies, beans, vegetables, fruits, mole sauces, and more. The masa dough can also have different seasonings and flavors added.
Main components of tamales
While recipes vary, tamales typically contain:
- Masa – This is the dough made from masa harina (dried and ground nixtamalized corn) mixed with lard or vegetable shortening. It gives tamales their distinctive texture.
- Filling – The tasty stuffing in the middle that can be savory or sweet. Common fillings include shredded pork, chicken, cheese, beans, chilies, mole sauce, pumpkin, raisins, and more.
- Wrapper – Traditionally corn husks or banana/plantain leaves that encase the masa and filling while steaming. The wrapper lends flavor and helps the tamales retain moisture.
- Seasonings – Ingredients like garlic, onions, chilies, spices, herbs, chocolate, etc are added to the masa dough and/or fillings to give tamales flavor.
Types of tamales
Some of the most common types of tamales found across Latin America include:
- Tamales rojos – Made with a red chili pepper-infused masa and often filled with pork in red sauce.
- Tamales verdes – Tamales with green tomatillo sauce and pork or chicken fillings.
- Tamales de elote – Sweet corn tamales, typically filled with corn, cream, cheese, and mild chilies.
- Tamales de rajas – Filled with strips of mild chili peppers and cheese.
- Tamales dulces – Sweet tamales with fruit, coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, raisins or chocolate fillings.
- Tamales de mole – Savory tamales with the classic Mexican mole sauce.
- Tamales oaxaqueños – Unique, softened masa in banana leaves common in Oaxaca.
- Humitas – Fresh sweet corn tamales common in South America.
- Hallacas – Tamales made with cornmeal masa, Venezuela’s take on tamales.
These are just a small sample of the many varieties that exist across Latin American cuisine.
Are tamales spicy?
While some types of tamales are very mild in flavor, others can be extremely spicy due to the peppers and seasonings used. Here are some factors that determine how spicy tamales will be:
The filling provides much of the flavor in a tamale. Spicy fillings like chili peppers, spiced meats, and mole sauce can give it some heat. More mild fillings include cheese, vegetables, corn, beans and sweet options like fruits or coconut.
Chilies in masa
Many tamale masa doughs incorporate dried chilies, chili powder or spicy seasonings. The spicier the chili or blend used, the spicier the overall tamale will become.
Salsa or dipping sauce
Some very spicy salsas and chili sauces can be served on the side of tamales to amp up the heat level. For example, salsas made with habanero or ghost peppers can make even a mildly flavored tamale become very spicy.
Some regions are known for making especially spicy tamales. For example, tamales from states like Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero in Mexico tend to incorporate a lot of spicy elements.
Dry heat cooking methods tend to accentuate spiciness more. Tamales that are boiled or steamed allow some of the volatile spices to get released in the steam whereas tamales cooked by other methods like baking or grilling keep more of their spicy edge.
|Tamales de elote
|Tamales de rajas
|Mild to medium
How to control spiciness of tamales
There are a few ways cooks can control the spiciness level in their tamales:
- Use mild, medium or hot chili varieties in the masa, filling or sauce.
- Adjust the amount of dried chili peppers, chili powder or other spices used.
- Prepare two batches – one spicy and one mild.
- Let individuals add their own spicy salsa or hot sauce.
- Consider the ingredients and preparation method – things like steaming tend to make a tamale less spicy than baking or frying.
- Choose naturally milder fillings like cheese, vegetables, beans, fruits or sweet options.
Tips for reducing spiciness
If a tamale is accidentally made too spicy, here are some tips to reduce the heat:
- Add more masa dough to dilute the spiciness.
- Mix in some dairy like shredded cheese or sour cream.
- Serve with mild salsa on the side.
- Accompany with bread, rice or tortillas to balance the heat.
- Add sweet garnishes like shredded coconut, raisins or mango.
- Drink milk or eat creamy yogurt to counteract spicy capsaicin oils.
Should you make spicy tamales?
Whether or not to make spicy tamales comes down to personal preference:
- Spicy tamales are beloved by many who love big flavor and heat. The spice showcases the tamale fillings nicely.
- Milder tamales appeal to more sensitive palates, kids, and anyone who wants to experience the flavors without overpowering spice.
- Offering a choice of spicy and mild tamales can please different preferences at a shared meal.
- You can always serve extra hot sauce on the side to let people add more heat if desired.
Popular spicy tamale fillings
Some traditionally spicy tamale fillings include:
- Chili con carne – Beef or pork in a spicy red chili sauce.
- Chili verde – Pork in a spicy tomatillo salsa.
- Chili rellenos – Roasted green chilies and melting cheese.
- Mole – Savory sauce made with dried chilies, chocolate, spices.
- Rajas con queso – Strips of poblano pepper and melted cheese.
- Picadillo – Spicy ground beef with raisins and olives.
- Chicharrón – Small fried pork rinds.
- Chorizo – Spicy Mexican sausage.
You can also come up with your own spicy fillings like buffalo chicken, sauteed jalapeños and onions, shredded barbecue beef, or five bean chili.
Making tamales less spicy
Some easy ideas for milder, less spicy tamale fillings include:
- Cheese – Oaxaca, cotija, queso fresco, Monterey Jack.
- Sweet corn
- Green chilies
- Roasted vegetables like zucchini, squash, peppers, onions.
- Refried or black beans
- Shredded chicken in tomatillo or red enchilada sauce.
- Fruits like pineapple, strawberries, coconut, plantains, guava.
- Nuts like almonds, pecans, walnuts, peanuts.
- Chocolate chips
- Pumpkin or sweet potato
You can make the masa dough more mild by using less or no chili powder and opting for more garlic powder, cumin, oregano, or black pepper instead.
Tamales can vary immensely in their spiciness based on preparation methods, fillings, salsa, and regional styles. There are very spicy tamale varieties as well as mild options – it comes down to personal taste and occasion. With so many possible fillings and masa combinations, cooks can easily control the heat level in their tamales. By choosing ingredients wisely and having spicy accents on the side, tamales can be enjoyed at any spiciness level desired.