Tamales are a traditional Mexican food made of masa (corn dough) filled with savory fillings and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. They are a popular comfort food and holiday tradition in Mexico and Latin America. So what are some classic sides and sauces that Mexicans enjoy with tamales?
Salsa is essential for adding flavor, spice, and moisture to tamales. There are many types of salsas that pair well with different fillings. Here are some of the most popular:
- Red salsa or salsa roja – Made from tomatoes, chili peppers, onion, garlic, and cilantro. Works well with pork, chicken, or beef tamales.
- Green salsa or salsa verde – Made from tomatillos, serrano chiles, onion, garlic, and cilantro. Goes great with cheese, bean, or vegetable tamales.
- Mole – A complex, thick sauce made from chili peppers, spices, nuts, seeds, and chocolate. Paired with chicken or turkey tamales.
- Pico de gallo – A fresh salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and lime. Adds a bright flavor to any tamale.
- Guacamole – Avocados blended with onions, chiles, cilantro, lime, and tomatoes. A creamy pairing for spicy tamales.
Salsas add moisture, cooling relief, and extra flavor dimensions to tamales. They also cut through the dense masa texture. A tomatillo salsa, red chili salsa, or mole sauce are must-try pairings for authentic tamales.
Curtido is a pickled cabbage relish popular in El Salvador and Guatemala. It typically contains shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, oregano, and chili peppers pickled in vinegar. Curtido provides a tangy, fermented contrast to rich tamales. It also aids digestion. This bright, crunchy topping takes tamales to the next level.
Frijoles refritos, or refried beans, are a traditional Mexican side dish. Pinto or black beans are cooked down with onions and garlic and mashed into a thick paste. Lard or bacon fat is often used for added flavor. Refried beans pair perfectly with most tamale fillings. Their smooth, hearty texture complements the masa and soaks up any excess sauce.
Spanish-style Mexican rice makes for a classic tamale pairing. Long grain rice is cooked with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and spices like cumin. The rice provides a mild base to balance strong tamale flavors. Tomato-based Mexican rice also complements red salsas and mole.
Queso fresco is a soft, mild, fresh Mexican cheese made from cow or goat’s milk. It has a salty, tangy flavor and crumbly texture. Sprinkling queso fresco over bean, cheese, or chile tamales adds more richness. The cheese also counters spicy heat.
Crema is a cultured cream product used in Mexican cuisine. It has a tangy flavor and rich texture. Drizzling crema over tamales adds moisture and cuts through heavy ingredients like masa, beans, and cheese. Fruit-filled sweet tamales pair especially well with a dollop of crema.
Pico de Gallo
Pico de gallo is a fresh salsa made from chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, and lime juice. It has a bright, acidic flavor that cuts through dense tamale fillings. Pico de gallo also adds moisture and a fresh texture contrast. It pairs with almost any kind of tamale.
Guacamole is a creamy avocado-based dip made with onions, tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, and lime. It makes for a satisfying tamale pairing thanks to its rich texture and cooling flavor. The avocado cools spicy tamales while also balancing saltiness. Guacamole goes great with chile, cheese, or bean tamales.
Also called cebollitas cambray, these are pickled onion garnishes popular in Mexico. Small pickled white onions offer a tangy crunch that cuts through heavy tamale ingredients. Their vinegary flavor balances the richness while exciting the palate.
Thinly sliced radishes are often combined with sliced onion, cilantro, and lime wedges for tamale garnish. The crisp radishes and onions add fresh texture and flavor. Radishes specifically have a peppery bite that offsets heavy ingredients.
Fresh lime juice is a perfect tamale accompaniment. The acidity cuts through fat and enhances flavors. Lime adds brightness and moisture to masa. Squeezing lime over tamales also balances chile heat and saltiness. It brings all the components together.
Ground dried chile peppers can be sprinkled over tamales for extra heat. Chile powders like ancho, chipotle, guajillo, or pasilla add depth of flavor. They also round out the flavors of specific fillings like chili con carne or rajas con queso.
Cotija is a firm, crumbly Mexican cheese with salty flavor. It makes an excellent toasted garnish sprinkled over bean, vegetable, or chile tamales before serving. Cotija’s dry texture contrasts the masa while enhancing flavors.
Fresh sliced or pickled jalapeño peppers can be served alongside tamales. Their heat levels the overall flavor profile. Pickled jalapeños offer acidity to cut through dense fillings. Some like to dice fresh jalapeños into fillings for a spicy kick.
Fresh cilantro leaves or stems elevate tamales with herbal flavor. They also add color contrast making tamales more visually appealing. Cilantro’s cooling flavor balances chile heat. It also pairs well with common fillings like beans, tomato salsas, and green moles.
Thinly sliced raw white, red, or green onion offers bite to tamales. Onions have an sharp vegetal flavor that cuts through fat. Red onions specifically add sweetness while green onions have herbal notes. Pickled onion slivers also make an appealing garnish.
Habenero Hot Sauce
For extreme heat, serve tamales with habanero hot sauce on the side. Habanero chiles rank among the spiciest peppers. Their fruity, floral heat intensifies any tamale filling. A little habanero hot sauce goes a long way in ramping up flavors.
Chopped Raw Onion
Chopped raw white, yellow, or red onion provides bite to tamales. The sharp allium flavor cuts through fat and richness. Raw onions also have a crunchy texture contrasting soft masa and fillings. Their acidity balances salt and chile heat.
Corn or flour tortilla quesadillas filled with cheese make a nice accompaniment to tamales. They provide an additional source of protein, fat, and carbs to balance the meal. Plus, kids tend to love cheese quesadillas! Serve them on the side or use small quesadillas to make tamale enchiladas.
Chayote is a mild, firm squash popular in Latin cuisine. It can be sliced raw for tamale garnish or cooked as a side. Chayote has a crisp texture and its slight sweetness offsets tamale fillings. It also adds moisture, fiber, and additional vitamins.
Warm corn tortillas round out a tamale meal. Their earthy, grainy taste contrasts the soft corn masa of tamales. Plus, you can use tortillas to make tamale tacos or mini handheld tamale wraps.
Plain white or brown rice or flavored rice like Mexican rice provide carbs and mild flavor to accompany tamales. The grains soak up sauce for a satisfying meal. Rice and tamales eaten together make for balanced nutrition.
Crispy, fried rolled taquitos (little tacos) work well with tamales. Their crunch contrasts the soft tamale texture. Fillings like chicken or beef complement most tamale fillings. The fat also balances the fat in tamales for a hearty meal.
Fried sweet plantains have a sweet, starchy quality that offsets savory tamales. Their soft texture also contrasts the masa. Cubed, smashed, or fried into chips, sweet plantains make a nice side. They pair especially well with bean, pork, or chicken tamales.
Empanadas are baked or fried pastries stuffed with savory fillings like meat, cheese, or vegetables. Their portability complements tamales for a shared appetizer-style meal. Choose empanadas with fillings that match the tamale fillings.
A fresh green salad provides balance when eating rich tamales. The vegetables, greens, and vinaigrette cut through the fat. Plus, salad offers moisture, nutrients, and enzymes to aid digestion. Lightly dressed crunchy salad is the perfect tamale side.
For dessert, serve tamales with flan. This baked caramel custard has a rich, velvety texture contrasting masa. Flan’s sweetness balances savory tamale flavors. It also aids digestion after a heavy meal (especially with chili pepper tamales).
Churros are fried dough pastries coated in cinnamon and sugar. Their crisp, sweet quality offsets tamales nicely. Churros dipped into warm chocolate sauce make an ideal sweet finish. The sugar and fat also helps settle spice from chile tamales.
Another classic Mexican dessert, sopapillas are fried dough fritters drizzled with honey. Their pillowy sweetness perfectly balances preceding tamales. The honey soothes any lingering heat from spicy fillings as well.
Mexican Hot Chocolate
Warm, rich Mexican hot chocolate makes a comforting drink with tamales. It typically contains cinnamon, vanilla, and sometimes chile powder for a kick. The chocolate’s sweetness and fat smooths out the meal. Chili powder ignites the palate between bites.
Horchata is a rice milk drink flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. Its sweetness contrasts savory tamales. Rice milk also soothes digestion after a heavy, fat-filled meal. Horchata makes a refreshing palate cleanser between bites.
Jamaica or hibiscus flower agua fresca has a tart, cranberry-like flavor. The slight acidity cuts through rich tamales nicely. It also aids digestion and offers hydration. The vibrant red-purple color looks beautiful with tamales too.
Strong coffee is served after many meals in Mexico. The bitterness balances preceding sweet and savory flavors. Coffee’s heat re-awakens the palate and aids digestion. Try cafe de olla sweetened with piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar).
Sweet vs Savory Tamales
Sweet tamales make ideal desserts after a meal of savory tamales. Common sweet fillings like fruit, chocolate, coconut, and vanilla (or combinatios thereof) provide contrast. Sweet tamales also pair well with the above dessert suggestions like flan, chocolate, and pastries.
When serving only savory tamales, sides like salsas, fried tortillas or plantains, fresh vegetables, rice, beans, and cheese provide balance. Pickled items, salad, and citrus fruit help cut through the fat as well.
What you drink with tamales also influences the overall flavor experience. Here are some classic beverage pairings:
- Aguas frescas – fresh fruit waters like hibiscus, tamarind, or melon
- Horchata – cinnamon rice milk
- Jamaica – tangy hibiscus flower tea
- Mexican hot chocolate
- Beer – lagers, pilsners, pale ale
- Wine – pinot noir, sangria, sweet whites
- Pulque – fermented agave drink
- Tepache – fermented pineapple drink
Beverages provide hydration and refreshment between bites. Their flavors also balance chile heat and cleanse the palate. Acidic drinks like aguas frescas made with citrus, pineapple, or hibiscus aid digestion after a heavy tamale meal.
Tamale accompaniments also vary somewhat by region in Mexico and Latin America. For example:
- Northern Mexico – chili con carne, refried beans, Mexican rice
- Oaxaca – mole sauces, queso fresco, radish
- Yucatan – habanero salsas, achiote seasoning, cochinita pibil
- Veracruz – seafood like ceviche, fish filets
- Jalisco – tequila, sangrita sauce
Get creative mixing and matching traditional tamale pairings from different regions in Mexico and Latin America. This allows for diverse flavors at the same meal.
Tamales deserve flavorful accompaniments like salsas, cheeses, pickled vegetables, fresh garnishes, and specialty desserts and drinks. These sides balance and enhance the masa, fillings, and overall eating experience. Every culture has unique food pairings based on cuisine, ingredients, and customs. With iconic staples like tamales, generations of wisdom informs ideal matches that bring harmony of both taste and nutrition.