The Mexican dish made from corn husks is called tamales (pronounced tah-MAH-lays). Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish that have been made for thousands of years dating back to the time of the Aztecs and Mayans. They are made from masa (corn dough) that is stuffed with savory or sweet fillings, then wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. Tamales are an iconic part of Mexican cuisine and remain a popular dish today throughout Mexico and the American Southwest.
What are tamales?
Tamales are a seasoned masa (corn dough) mixture that is stuffed with savory fillings like meat, cheese, chilies or sweet fillings like fruits, then wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed. The characteristics of tamales include:
- Made from masa – The masa is made from nixtamalized corn, meaning the corn is cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution of limewater or slaked lime to make the nutrients more bioavailable.
- Stuffed with fillings – All types of tamales are stuffed with some type of filling, either savory meats/chilies or sweet fruits/nuts.
- Wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves – The masa dough and filling are wrapped in either dried corn husks, banana leaves or avocado leaves before being steamed.
- Steamed – Tamales are cooked by steam which allows the masa to retain moisture while still cooking through.
Tamales are often eaten on holidays and special occasions but are also sold street vendors in Mexico as a popular regional fast food. In the U.S, tamales are frequently found at Mexican restaurants or Latin markets.
History of Tamales
Tamales have a long history going back thousands of years to Pre-Columbian times. Some key facts about the origins and history of tamales include:
- Originated in Mesoamerica – Tamales date back to at least 8000 – 5000 BC during the Archaic period of Mesoamerican history. The Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs and Toltecs all made tamales.
- Corn was first domesticated in Mexico – The original source of the masa was corn, which was first domesticated in southern Mexico thousands of years ago.
- Had religious significance – In the Aztec Empire, tamales were considered sacred and used in religious festivals and rituals.
- Basic ingredients still the same – While fillings have expanded over the centuries, the masa dough, corn husk wrapping and steaming process remains basically unchanged from ancient times.
- Spread through trade and migration – The popularity of tamales spread through Mesoamerica via trade routes. As people migrated north and South, tamale-making techniques went with them.
- Adopted in American Southwest – When the Southwest was still part of Mexico, tamales became a staple food and a part of rancho culture.
From ancient origins to modern times, tamales have stood the test of time and remain an important cultural food in Mexico and beyond.
Types of Tamales
There are countless variations of tamales throughout Mexico and Latin America. Tamales are highly customizable with different masa flavors, fillings and wrapping materials. Some common types include:
- Traditional red pork tamales – Made with pork and red chile sauce filling and chopped onions.
- Green chicken tamales – Filled with spiced shredded chicken and green tomatillo sauce.
- Cheese tamales – Filled with cheeses like queso fresco or queso Oaxaca.
- Bean tamales – Masas and fillings made from beans of all kinds.
- Mole tamales – Contains slow-cooked meats and sauce with a chocolate-chile flavor.
- Vegetable tamales – Filled with veggies like zucchini, spinach, or potatoes.
- Fish tamales – Fish like tilapia or tuna replacing more traditional meats.
- Raisin-cinnamon tamales – Masa infused with cinnamon and filled with raisins.
- Fruit tamales – Sweet fillings like apples, pineapple, strawberries or coconut.
- Sweet bean tamales – With sweetened bean paste as the filling.
- Chocolate tamales – Chocolate flavors built into the masa and as the filling.
- Coconut tamales – Shredded coconut enhances the masa and used as a filling.
- Cream cheese tamales – Sweetened cream cheese inside the masa.
There are also regional tamale variations that use local ingredients. The possibilities for inventing new tamale recipes are endless!
While tamale preparation takes some time and effort, making them at home can be a rewarding, fun cooking project. Here are the basic steps for making traditional tamales at home:
- Masa harina (dried corn flour)
- Lard or vegetable shortening
- Baking powder
- Filling ingredients – meat, cheese, veggies, etc.
- Corn husks
- Soak the dried corn husks in water until soft and pliable.
- Mix the masa harina with lard or shortening, broth, baking powder and salt to make a soft dough.
- Prepare the fillings of your choice, like shredded pork, chicken, cheese, beans etc.
- Spread about 2-3 tablespoons of masa dough on a corn husk then add the filling down the center.
- Fold the sides of the husk over the filling then tie shut with kitchen twine or a thin strip of husk.
- Place the wrapped tamales upright, seam side down, in a steamer basket or pot.
- Steam for 60-90 minutes until the masa pulls away easily from the husk.
Tamales are ready to enjoy when the masa easily separates from the husk! Now it’s time to dig in.
How to Eat Tamales
Tamales are commonly served and eaten the following ways:
- By hand – Simply peel back some of the husk and eat straight from your hand.
- With a fork – Use a fork to pull bites of tamale out from the husk.
- Unwrapped – Remove husk entirely and eat with fork on plate.
- In stews/soups – Unwrap and add to dishes like pozole stew.
- As tacos/sandwiches – Make tamale cakes or tamale sandwiches.
Salsa, hot sauce, toppings like cheese, lettuce, onions and crema fresca are often paired with tamales. Enjoy them as a main meal or side dish any time of day.
Where to Find Tamales
There are many places to find freshly made tamales including:
- Mexican restaurants – Many serve classic tamales or gourmet fusion versions.
- Taquerias and street vendors – Get quick, cheap roadside tamales.
- Latin/Mexican grocery stores – Sell ready-to-go tamales, masa and husks.
- Latin bakeries – Offer sweet and savory tamales.
- Farmers markets – Artisan and gourmet tamale makers.
- Online – Order frozen tamales online for delivery.
- In Mexico – Nearly everywhere from Oaxaca to Mexico City.
Try traditional tamale restaurants like Tamale Factory in Los Angeles or Claro’s in San Antonio. Or find homemade Latin American tamales at local taquerias and carnicerias (butcher shops).
Nutrition Facts of Tamales
The nutrition facts of tamales can vary greatly by ingredients but in general they provide:
|Amount (per 1 tamale)
Tamales are a well-balanced food containing complex carbs, protein, fat and fiber. Varieties with fillings like meat, cheese and beans offer more protein while veggie tamales provide nutrients from those ingredients. Overall tamales make a hearty, comforting meal.
Freezing and Storing Tamales
Tamales freeze very well for enjoying weeks or months later. Follow these tamale freezing tips:
- Cool freshly made tamales completely before freezing.
- Leave tamales wrapped in husks/leaves unless freezing over 2 months.
- Double wrap freezer bags to prevent freezer burn.
- Lay flat in single layer in freezer.
- Thaw overnight in fridge before reheating.
- Reheat frozen tamales by steaming about 20-30 minutes.
- Refrigerate unused fresh tamales up to 5 days.
With proper freezing technique, tamales can taste freshly prepared even months later. Now you can enjoy the savory or sweet masa taste of tamales anytime.
Tamale Fiestas and Festivals
Tamale festivals celebrating this cherished Mexican food tradition happen across the U.S. and Mexico. Some noteworthy events include:
- Tamalada Festival (Indio, CA) – Annual December festival with tamale cooking contests.
- Tamale Festival (Las Cruces, NM) – Part of the city’s Christmas celebration.
- Winters Tamale Festival (Winters, CA) – Over 50,000 attend this event in downtown Winters.
- Tamale Food Festival (Mazatlán, Mexico) – Week-long street food and music festival.
- Indio International Tamale Festival (Indio, CA) – World’s largest tamale festival with over 100,000 attendees.
At tamale festivals you can sample all kinds of inventive tamales while enjoying live music and entertainment. They offer a chance to celebrate tamale culture and history with the community.
Fun Facts about Tamales
- Tamales date back at least 5000 years to Pre-Columbian history.
- The ancient Aztecs used tamales as sacrificial offerings and ritual food.
- The word “tamale” comes from the Nahuatl word “tamalli” meaning wrapped.
- Making tamales is traditionally a family and community affair requiring a “tamalada”.
- The Guinness Book of World Records largest tamale weighed over 1 ton and was 60 feet long.
- The wrappers on Oaxacan tamales are made from banana leaves, not corn husks.
- December 12th is National Tamale Day in the United States.
Tamales are truly an ancient and beloved food that remains popular today. From Mexico through Central America and into the American Southwest, tamale culture unites communities.
Tamales are a classic Mexican comfort food with ancient roots dating back thousands of years. Made from masa dough stuffed with savory or sweet fillings and steamed inside a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper, tamales come in endless varieties but always make a hearty, satisfying meal. Beyond their amazing flavor, tamales hold cultural and historical significance in Mexico, while festivals in the U.S. celebrate this cherished food tradition. With options ranging from meat or veggie to fruits and chocolate, plus regional styles, tamales are loved all over Latin America and beyond. This ancient food has truly stood the test of time.