Oaxacan tamales are a traditional dish from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. They are made from a masa (corn dough) that is stuffed with various fillings, then wrapped in either corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. Oaxacan tamales are unique due to their complex flavors and varieties of fillings. The masa and fillings can vary between regions, towns, and even families in Oaxaca. However, there are some key ingredients that give Oaxacan tamales their distinctive taste and texture.
The masa (dough) for Oaxacan tamales is made from nixtamalized corn. This is corn that has been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater or wood ash lye, which helps removed the hull and germ of the corn kernels. Nixtamalization makes the corn more nutritious, flavorful, and easier to grind. Once nixtamalized, the corn is ground into a fine dough called masa.
Oaxacan masa typically contains a proportion of fat, usually lard or vegetable shortening, which gives it a richer taste and texture. Other traditional masa ingredients are broth, baking powder or calcium hydroxide (known as “cal”), and salt. Occasionally other seasonings are added to the masa as well, such as oregano, chili powder, or ground peppers. The exact ingredients and proportions vary between regions, towns, and families, creating a diversity of masa recipes across Oaxaca.
The fillings are what really distinguish Oaxacan tamales from other regional styles. While meat and cheese are common fillings, Oaxacan tamales have a vast array of traditional options:
- Mole – Rich, thick sauce made from chili peppers, spices, chocolate, nuts, and more
- Rajas – Strips of roasted poblano pepper and onion
- Picadillo – Shredded spiced meat
- Chochoyotes – Masa dumplings
- Chileajo – Oaxacan herb and chili sauce
- Flor de calabaza – Squash blossoms
- Hongos – Mushrooms
- Quesillo – String cheese
- Chapulines – Grasshoppers
- Amarillo – Oaxacan yellow mole
- Verde – Oaxacan green mole
- Frijoles – Refried beans
- Chicharrón – Fried pork skin
- Huevos – Eggs
- Papas – Potato chunks with onion
- Calabacitas – Zucchini
- Chaya – Tree spinach
- Flor de izote – Yucca flower buds
The variety of fillings reflects the diversity of ingredients native to Oaxaca. Different towns and regions have their own specialties based on local cuisine and ingredients. For example, tamales from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec often contain iguana, armadillo, seafood, or olives. The fillings are well-seasoned, making each bite of tamale bursting with flavor.
Traditionally, Oaxacan tamales are wrapped either in corn husks or banana leaves before steaming. Corn husks are the most common wrapper, as corn is the staple crop of Oaxaca and an important symbol in itself. They impart a subtle sweetness and perfume to the tamales. Banana leaves are more common in tropical parts of Oaxaca and add an herbal, grassy flavor.
The wrapping process is meticulous, as the tamales need to be perfectly sealed so no fillings leak out as they cook. Wrappers are soaked and softened before use, then folded tightly around each filled tamale. A few extra husks or leaves are placed on the bottom of the pot before steaming to prevent sticking.
Oaxacan cooks have a wide palette of seasonings and ingredients they use to add depth of flavor to tamale masa and fillings. Here are some of the most common:
- Chili peppers – Such as ancho, mulato, pasilla, guajillo, and de arbol
- Spices – Cumin, clove, cinnamon, allspice
- Herbs – Oregano, marjoram, epazote, hoja santa
- Nuts – Almonds, peanuts, sesame seeds
- Fruit – Plantain, pineapple, plum, mamey
- Chocolate – Added to mole sauces and some masa
- Lard or vegetable shortening
Different moles of Oaxaca rely on distinct combinations of these seasonings to create complex layers of flavor. The diversity of seasonings and ingredients used in Oaxacan tamale fillings and masa make each bite a unique experience.
While the ingredients may vary, the basic cooking process for Oaxacan tamales remains the same:
- Nixtamalize the corn and grind into masa
- Prepare fillings of choice, seasoning them well
- Mix together masa with a proportion of fat, broth, baking powder and salt
- Spread a layer of masa on the wrapper (corn husk or banana leaf)
- Add a spoonful of filling in the center
- Fold the wrapper tightly around the tamale
- Arrange wrapped tamales upright in a steamer pot
- Steam for 1-2 hours, until masa is firm
- Remove from heat and allow to rest for 15-30 minutes before serving
This steaming process ensures the masa cooks through while the fillings become heated and infused into the dough. The result is a soft, fragrant tamale filled with delicious ingredients.
While Oaxacan tamales share some common elements, there are also regional and local differences across the state. Here are some of the ways tamales can vary between towns and cities in Oaxaca:
- Moles are prominent – black, yellow/amarillo, red, green
- Many herbs used like avocado leaves, hoja santa
- Pork and chicken are common proteins
- Masa is soft and light in texture
Isthmus of Tehuantepec
- Influenced by southeast Mexican and Caribbean cuisine
- Fillings include seafood, olives, iguana, armadillo
- Masa has a unique reddish color
- Smaller tamales with banana leaf wrappers
- Fillings heavily feature mushrooms, squash flowers, and chili rajas
- Use of quintoniles (local greens) and chaya greens
- Influenced by indigenous Mixtec cuisine
- Masa has potent herb flavorings
- Thicker masa with potatoes or rice added
- Hearty fillings like beans, potatoes, mushrooms
- Chorizo usage in fillings and masa
- Heavily influenced by indigenous Zapotec cuisine
So while the basic Tamale recipe remains consistent across Oaxaca, the regional creativity and ingenuity of local cooks makes each area’s tamales unique. The diversity reflects the state’s indigenous cultures, geography, and local agriculture.
Types of Oaxacan Tamales
With so many different fillings and preparations, Oaxacan tamales can be broadly categorized into a few distinct styles:
Mole Tamales – The most well-known, filled with rich, complex mole sauce, either black, red, yellow or green. The sauce moistens the masa and brings an explosion of flavors.
Meat Tamales – Filled with shredded or ground meat like pork, chicken, beef, or even chorizo. The meat is well-seasoned and mixed with sauces.
Vegetable Tamales – Stuffed with a medley of regional vegetables like squash, mushrooms, greens, and chilies. Often mixed with onions, garlic, and broth.
Sweet Tamales – Either filled with fruits or with naturally sweet masa flavored with cinnamon or chocolate. Raisins or prunes are sometimes added to the masa itself.
Bean Tamales – Filled with mashed or refried beans, often with chorizo or bacon for added flavor. The starchiness complements the masa.
Cheese Tamales – Filled with stringy Oaxacan cheese like quesillo or queso fresco, or sometimes goat cheese for richness.
With all the possible combinations, there are estimated to be over 500 varieties of Oaxacan tamales showcasing the incredible diversity of the region’s cuisine.
Oaxacan tamales provide a nutritious, well-rounded meal when made traditionally. Here is the nutritional breakdown for a typical tamale:
Calories – 250-300 per tamale
Carbohydrates – 45-50g
Protein – 10-15g
Fat – 9-12g
Fiber – 3-4g
The masa offers complex carbohydrates from the corn, while the fillings provide proteins and fats. The amount varies depending on the filling, from vegetable tamales on the lighter end to meat and cheese tamales being more caloric. The fat comes mostly from the masa itself rather than the fillings. Overall, a tamale is a balanced meal.
Compared to many other Mexican dishes loaded with fat, calories, and refined carbs, tamales made the traditional nixtamalized way are relatively healthy. They are an excellent energizing meal for both locals and visitors in Oaxaca.
Where to Eat Oaxacan Tamales
While Oaxacan tamales can be found all over the state, here are some of the best places to try authentic tamales in Oaxaca:
Mercados – The bustling local markets like Mercado 20 De Noviembre and Mercado Benito Juárez have vendors selling tamales made daily. You can try a variety of different fillings.
Festivals – Keep an eye out for local festivals like Día de La Candelaria on February 2nd, where you can taste tamales from all over Oaxaca.
Calle Alcalá – This street near the zócalo is lined with excellent tamale shops and stalls open day and night.
Las Quince Letras – Historic cafe serving up delicious mole and vegetable tamales in the heart of the city.
Parque Llano – There is an amazing tamale vendor in the park every Saturday and Sunday morning.
Roadside Stands – Look for local women selling tamales on the streets, at bus stops, and highway roadsides throughout rural Oaxaca.
For an authentic Oaxacan tamale experience, go where the locals go. Every cook has their own unique style, so try as many different homemade tamales as possible. With an endless diversity of flavors, textures, and recipes, you’ll discover just how special Oaxacan tamales truly are.
Make Your Own Oaxacan Tamales
While it’s ideal to taste authentic Oaxacan tamales in Mexico, you can also try making them at home. Here is a basic recipe to get started:
- 2 cups masa harina
- 1 cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
- 1/4 cup lard or vegetable shortening
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
Fillings: Use your choice of fillings like mole, beans, cheese, meats. Season well.
Wrappers: Soak corn husks in water 1 hour to soften. Shake off excess water before using.
- Mix together masa ingredients until a soft dough forms
- Spread about 3 tbsp masa on each husk
- Add 1-2 tbsp filling down center
- Fold long sides of husk over filling, then fold up bottom tip
- Tie up top with a strip of husk to seal (optional)
- Place tamales upright in a steamer,Cover and steam 60-90 minutes
You can also use a slow cooker to steam the tamales if you don’t have a dedicated steamer. Just make sure not to open the lid during cooking. Adjust cook times and ingredients as needed. While not exactly authentic, homemade tamales are a fun way to experience Oaxacan flavors at home.
With a rich masa, mouthwatering fillings, and elaborate wrapping process, Oaxacan tamales offer an amazing culinary experience. They come in seemingly endless varieties reflecting the incredible diversity across the state. Tamales provide a hearty, wholesome meal that sustains both locals and visitors alike. When in Oaxaca, be sure to try tamales from street vendors, markets, and local eateries to appreciate the full depth of flavors they offer. With the right recipes and ingredients, you can even recreate a bit of Oaxaca’s tamale tradition in your own kitchen.