Tamales are a traditional Latin American dish made from masa or dough, which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, vegetables, chiles, and other ingredients. They are often served during celebrations and holidays. When it comes to topping tamales, there are many delicious options to consider!
One of the most popular tamale toppings is salsa. Salsa adds a tasty kick and flavor contrast to the masa dough. There are many types of salsa that pair well with tamales:
- Red salsa or salsa roja: This traditional salsa is made from tomatoes, chile peppers, onion, garlic, and cilantro. It has a spicy, tangy flavor.
- Green salsa or salsa verde: Made with tomatillos and green chile peppers, this salsa has a bright, herbal taste.
- Tomatillo salsa: Slightly tangier than green salsa, this type of salsa uses tomatillos as the main ingredient.
- Mango salsa: For a fruity twist, mango salsa with tomatoes, onion, chile peppers, and cilantro is delicious on tamales.
- Pineapple salsa: The sweetness of pineapple balances the spice in this salsa.
- Salsa macha: A textures salsa from Oaxaca made with toasted chiles, sesame seeds, peanuts or almonds, and oil or lard.
The possibilities are endless when making homemade or store-bought salsa to top hearty tamales. A dollop of salsa adds moisture, spice, and flavor to every bite.
For those who like even more heat, hot sauce is an excellent tamale topping. A few dashes of hot sauce can light your tastebuds on fire. Popular hot sauces to try are:
- Cholula: This hot sauce from Mexico has a tangy, vinegary flavor with a blend of peppers.
- Tapatío: Made from red peppers and spices, this hot sauce is a favorite in Mexican cuisine.
- Valentina: Known for its bright red color and smoky taste, this hot sauce adds serious heat.
- Habanero hot sauce: For extreme spiciness, habanero-based hot sauces have an intense, fruity heat.
- Jalapeño hot sauce: Jalapeño peppers give this type of hot sauce a solid kick of spice.
When topping tamales with hot sauce, it’s best to add it gradually and taste after each dash or drizzle to gauge the spice level. A small amount of hot sauce goes a long way in adding a fiery kick.
Melted cheese is a popular topping for tamales. The rich, creamy flavor of melted cheese perfectly complements masa dough. Queso fresco and queso Oaxaca are two traditional Mexican cheeses that are delicious on tamales. Other cheesy topping ideas include:
- Monterey Jack
- Pepper jack
- Queso blanco
Sprinkle shredded cheese over hot tamales right before serving so it can melt into all the nooks and crannies. The gooey cheese mingles with the masa texture and any fillings for tasty mouthfuls.
Crema is a popular Mexican garnish that complements tamales wonderfully. Crema has a flavor similar to sour cream but with more tanginess and a thinner consistency. The cool, rich taste of crema balances the corn masa while adding moisture. Traditionally, crema is drizzled over tamales before serving. However, you can also add a dollop right on top of each tamale. The possibilities are endless when it comes to how much crema to add based on your tastes!
Buttery, smooth avocado is an excellent choice for topping tamales. You can add slices or chunks of avocado, mash it up into guacamole, or blend it into a cream. No matter how you slice it, avocado adds delicious flavor and texture to tamales. A few ways to enjoy avocado with tamales:
- Add slices of fresh avocado
- Make a quick guacamole with avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro, and lime to top tamales
- Mix mashed avocado with Greek yogurt or crema for an avocado cream sauce
- Blend avocado with salsa verde for a tangy topping
The healthy fats and creaminess of avocado complements tamales wonderfully. Don’t be afraid to add plenty of avocado when topping tamales!
Curtido is a type of pickled slaw or relish popular in El Salvador. It makes for a tangy, crunchy topping for tamales. Curtido is typically made with thinly sliced cabbage, carrots, and onions marinated in vinegar, garlic, oregano, and chile peppers. The refreshing, acidic flavors contrast the corn masa in tamales. Simply spoon curtido over hot tamales or serve it on the side for topping each bite.
For extra heat and crunch, top tamales with sliced or diced jalapeño peppers. The spicy kick of fresh jalapeños pairs nicely with the masa dough. You can scatter jalapeño slices over the top of tamales before serving. Or dice them up finer and mix into salsas and cremas for a peppery kick. Pickled jalapeños, also known as escabeche, are also tasty for topping tamales.
Pico de Gallo
Fresh pico de gallo makes a fantastic topping for tamales. This salsa is made by combining diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and lime juice. The bright, crunchy texture and acidity of pico de gallo helps cut through the dense masa of tamales. Spoon pico de gallo over tamales or serve it alongside for adding as much or as little as you want with each bite.
Also called salsa verde, tomatillo sauce has a refreshing tartness that complements tamales deliciously. Made from tomatillos, garlic, onions, chiles, cilantro, and more, this light green sauce is easy to make at home. Drizzle tomatillo sauce over pork or chicken tamales for added moisture and zip. Tomatillo sauce can also be served alongside tamales for dipping each bite.
Mole is a classic Mexican sauce made from chiles, spices, seeds, nuts, chocolate, and more. It makes for a rich topping for tamales, especially those filled with chicken, pork, or turkey. The complex flavors of mole balance the corn masa wonderfully. There are many regional varieties of mole to try such as mole poblano, mole verde, mole negro, and mole coloradito. Ladle warm mole over tamales right before serving.
This Yucatan-style red seasoning paste is delicious on tamales. Recado rojo is made from tomatoes, onions, garlic, achiote paste, and Mexican oregano. It has a tangy, earthy flavor that complements the masa wonderfully. Recado rojo is often used to season meats before filling tamales like cochinita pibil. Try spreading recado rojo directly over both savory and sweet tamales for added flavor.
Spreading refried beans over tamales adds protein and hearty flavor. Refritos, meaning well-fried beans, have a smooth, spreadable texture perfect for topping masa. Simply spoon warm frijoles refritos over pork or chicken tamales before serving. The earthiness of the beans balances the corn masa deliciously. Some chopped onion and queso fresco on top take refried beans over tamales to the next level.
Fresh cilantro adds a pop of color, flavor, and texture when topping tamales. The bright, herbal notes of cilantro pair nicely with the corn masa dough. Try scattering cilantro over tamales before serving. You can also mix chopped cilantro into salsas, cremas, and guacamole toppings for a fresh taste and green flecks of color.
Onions add a savory bite to tamales and can be used as a topping in many ways. Thinly sliced raw onion gives a crunchy texture and strong flavor. Caramelized onions offer a mellow, sweet accent. Sautéed onion sprinkled over refried beans or queso topping is delicious. And of course, onion is a key ingredient in many salsas to top tamales.
Cotija is a crumbly aged Mexican cheese with a salty, umami flavor. It makes an excellent topping for all types of tamales. Tamales filled with veggies, cheese, or chiles balance well with the sharpness of cotija. The cheese brings out extra corn flavor when paired with the masa. Simply crumble cotija over hot tamales before serving for added texture and bite.
For rich flavor and moisture, drizzle Mexican crema over tamales before serving. You can also top tamales with tangy sour cream or creamy Mexican requesón cheese for similar effects. The cool, velvety texture counters the soft, steaming masa. Crema, sour cream, and requesón add subtle tangy and salty flavors to balance corn tamales.
For toppings with a taquería-twist, try using minced cabbage, shredded lettuce, crumbled potato chips, or peanuts on tamales. The extra crunch and flavors mimic classic Mexican street taco garnishes. Crunchy toppings help cut through the soft texture of tamales for fun contrasts.
For a unique sweet and spicy topping, try an easy fruit salsa on tamales. Pineapple, mango, and jicama are popular fruits used in salsas for tacos and tamales. Dice the fruit up small and mix with chile powder, lime juice, onion, and cilantro. The sweet fruits balance the corn masa dough marvelously.
For dessert tamales, sweet toppings add the finishing touch. Drizzle cajeta, Mexican caramel, over sweet tamales filled with fruits, nuts, or chocolate. Spoon sweetened whipped cream over pumpkin, coconut, or strawberry tamales. Dip dessert tamales in chocolate sauce for added decadence. Candied nuts like pecans or pepitas create festive crunch. The options are plentiful when dreaming up sweet toppings for tamales.
When serving up tamales, toppings provide flavorful accents, texture contrasts, and aesthetic appeal. Salsas, hot sauces, sliced jalapeños, pico de gallo, and guacamole are great options for spicing up tamales. For comfort food flair, melted cheese, crema, refried beans, and mole are perfect. Crunchy vegetables, herbs, and cheeses like onion, cilantro, and cotija give a fresh finish. Sweet toppings like fruit salsas or chocolate sauce make tamales a dessert. The masa dough of tamales is the perfect canvas for infinite topper possibilities to suit any tastes!