Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa or dough, which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The masa is usually filled with meats, cheeses, vegetables, chilies or other ingredients. Tamales can be savory or sweet and are often served during holidays and special occasions. They originated in Pre-Columbian times and were later spread around Latin America after Spanish colonization. Today, tamales remain an important part of the cuisine of Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean as well as the American Southwest.
What are the main ingredients in tamales?
The main ingredients in tamales are:
- Masa – This is the dough made from masa harina (dried and ground corn treated with lime) or sometimes fresh corn dough. It forms the wrap or shell of the tamale.
- Filling – The filling is placed on top of a layer of masa then wrapped. Common fillings include meats, cheeses, chilies, beans, vegetables, fruits or sweets.
- Corn husks or banana leaves – The masa dough is traditionally wrapped and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves.
Additional ingredients can include lard or oil for the masa and seasonings like garlic, onions, cilantro, salt and pepper for flavoring the fillings. Recipes can vary regionally.
What are the most common tamale fillings?
Some of the most traditional and popular tamale fillings include:
- Shredded chicken
- Shredded pork
- Ground beef
The meats are usually cooked with chilies, tomatoes, garlic, onions and seasoning.
- Oaxaca cheese or mozzarella
- Cheddar or Monterey Jack
- Requesón or ricotta
- Goat cheese
Cheeses are often mixed with chilies or herbs for added flavor.
- Zucchini or squash
Vegetables are seasoned and sautéed before used as fillings.
- Refried beans
- Rajas (strips of chilies)
- Picadillo (spiced ground meat)
In addition to savory fillings, sweet tamale fillings can include fruits, vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, coconut and chocolate.
The masa can also be flavored with additions like anise, allspice, cinnamon or cacao. Creative fillings like curry chicken, pineapple salsa or buffalo chicken are popular modern twists.
What are the different types of tamales?
There are many different regional variations of tamales throughout Latin America. Some of the most common types include:
- Tamales Oaxaqueños – From Oaxaca, wrapped in banana leaves and often stuffed with mole
- Tamales Veracruzanos – From Veracruz, filled with olives, capers and jalapeños
- Tamales de Elote – Sweet corn tamales
- Tamales Dulces – Sweet tamales with raisins, coconut, pumpkin or chocolate
- Tamales de Rajas – Tamales with cheese and strips of mild chili peppers
- Tamales Pisques – From Guatemala, made with red sauce
- Tamales de Elote – Sweet corn tamales found across Central America
- Tamales de Arroz – Tamales made with rice in Costa Rica
- Tamales de Cambray – Nicaraguan tamales with chicken and potatoes
- Humitas – Fresh corn tamales from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru
- Tamales Tolimenses – From Colombia, made with rice, peas, chicken, pork and potatoes
- Tamales de Arroz – Rice tamales found in Colombia and Ecuador
- Tamales de Queso – Cheese tamales popular in Venezuela
- Tamales Cubanos – Made without corn masa but with dough from boiled starchy tubers
- Pasteles – Rectangular tamales from Puerto Rico with green bananas
- Guanimes – Thick green corn tamales from the Dominican Republic
How are tamales traditionally prepared?
Making tamales is a time-intensive labor of love that often involves the whole family. Here are the basic traditional preparation steps:
- Make the masa – The corn husks or banana leaves are soaked and cleaned. The masa is prepared using masa harina, lard or oil, and broth or water. It is mixed to a smooth, spreadable dough.
- Prepare the fillings – The fillings are cooked and seasoned. Traditional fillings require simmering meats in chilies, spices and broth until tender.
- Assemble the tamales – Corn husks are layered on a work surface. Masa is spread over the husk, then fillings are placed down the center. They are rolled up into small packages and the ends are folded closed.
- Steam the tamales – The wrapped tamales are placed upright in a steamer pot, colander or special tamalera steamer. They are steamed until the masa is firm and cooked through, usually around 1 hour.
- Serve the tamales – The tamales can be served immediately or saved for later. Frozen tamales are thawed and heated before serving.
It’s traditional to cook multiple batches of tamales and enjoy them throughout the holidays. Leftovers can keep refrigerated for about a week. Tamales are often served with salsas, toppings like cheese or crema, and hot coffee or atole (a corn-based Mexican drink).
What are some tips for making great tamales?
Here are some helpful tips for making delicious tamales at home:
- Use dried corn husks and make sure they have been properly soaked and cleaned. Fresh husks work even better.
- Allow the masa to rest for 30 minutes after mixing. This allows the corn to fully hydrate for a smoother dough.
- Spread the masa as thin as possible on the husks without tearing them.
- Keep the fillings chunky and flavorful. Under-seasoned fillings can make for bland tamales.
- Fold the tamales carefully but tightly, making sure the seam is fully closed.
- Stand the tamales upright, folded-side up, and tightly pack them in the steamer so they don’t unfold.
- Check halfway through steaming and add more water to the pot if needed to prevent drying out.
- Let the tamales rest for 5-10 minutes before serving so the masa sets up.
- Reheat leftover tamales by steaming, sautéing in oil or microwaving in a wet paper towel.
With some practice, you’ll be able to make amazing tamales for your family! The masa should be soft and moist, the fillings richly flavored, and the corn husks tender but intact.
The History of Tamales
Tamales have a long and storied history stretching back thousands of years in Mesoamerica. Here is a look at the origins and evolution of this iconic dish:
Tamales date back as far as 8000-5000 BC during the early Pre-Columbian periods of ancient Mexico and Central America. Some of the earliest evidence of tamale-making has been found in the ancient city of Tehuacán in Mexico.
The traditional method of steaming corn dough in maize husks or other natural wrappings across early Mesoamerican cultures would form the basis of the ubiquitous tamale. Tamales were an important part of dietary and ceremonial life going back to the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs and Incas.
Spanish Colonial Era
When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, the tamale took on a more modern iteration. The Spanish introduced new spices, fruits, cheeses and cooking methods that influenced tamale-making, resulting in new varieties.
During Spain’s colonial rule, tamales spread from Mexico and Central America to various parts of the Americas, Asia and the Philippines via the Manila-Acapulco galleons. They became a traditional food in these regions as well as across the American Southwest after it came under US rule.
19th & 20th Century
In Mexico, tamale preparation became more standardized during the 19th century, adopting the nixtamalization of corn for the masa and establishing popular fillings and varieties. Street vendors played a major role in popularizing tamales across Mexico.
When waves of Mexican immigrants came to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought tamales north of the border. Tex-Mex cuisine was born as Mexican staples like tamales merged with and influenced American cuisine.
By the latter 20th century, the tamale had become a cherished culinary tradition across Mexico, Central America, the US Southwest, the Caribbean as well as cities with large Hispanic populations. They are now found globally, with chefs and home cooks putting creative spins on this ancient dish.
Beyond the traditional meat, cheese and vegetable stuffed tamales, there is an incredible diversity of tamales and creative fillings found across the Americas. Here is a look at some of the most beloved regional and contemporary variations:
Regional Tamale Varieties
- Tamales Oaxaqueños – From the Mexican state of Oaxaca, often contain mole and wrapped in banana leaves
- Tamales Tolimenses – A Colombian variety with rice, chicken, pork, peas and potatoes
- Humitas – Fresh sweet corn tamales from the Andes Mountains
- Chipa – Cheesy and buttery tamales from Paraguay often baked, not steamed
- Hallaca – Venezuelan tamales with cornmeal, beef, olives, raisins and vegetables
- Pasteles – Rectangular tamales from Puerto Rico made with green bananas
Modern chefs have come up with inventive fillings that put new twists on classic tamales:
- Barbecue pork with mango salsa
- Jalapeño popper with cream cheese and bacon
- Shrimp and avocado
- Chicken tikka masala
- Carne asada with guacamole
- Charred sweet corn with feta cheese
Vegetarians also have many diverse tamale fillings to choose from like spicy black beans, jackfruit tinga andStreet vendors playe
Cultural Significance of Tamales
Beyond their incredible flavors, tamales hold a much deeper cultural meaning across Latin America and in Latino communities. Here are some of the ways tamales represent culture and identity:
Celebrations and Rituals
Tamales are an integral part of holidays, festivals, celebrations of life and Day of the Dead offerings. They bring families and communities together through food. For many Latinos, the holidays are not complete without the tradition of making tamales.
Generational and Regional Pride
Specific tamale recipes are often passed down through generations. The variations represent distinct regional and ethnic identities—the tamales of Oaxaca are different from tamales found in Venezuela, for example.
Sharing and Togetherness
The communal process of making tamales fosters cooperation. It brings together grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles and friends for a lively cooking ritual. Sharing tamales shows love and caring.
Tamales represent an enduring cultural link to ancient civilizations and pre-Columbian traditions. They connect today’s Latinos to the rich history of people, cultures and recipes spanning millennia.
For Latinos and Hispanic Americans, tamales can represent maintaining tradition and connection to one’s roots, even when living away from Latin America. Making and eating tamales is nostalgic.
Nutrition & Health Benefits
Beyond being absolutely delicious, tamales can also provide some nutritional value and health benefits when made with wholesome ingredients. Here is a look at some of the nutrients found in tamales:
The meats, cheeses and even masa harina used in tamales contain protein needed for muscle growth, tissue repair and a healthy metabolism. The protein keeps you satiated as well.
The masa, corn husks and many fillings provide dietary fiber, which promotes healthy digestion and stable blood sugar levels.
Vitamins & Minerals
Ingredients like corn, meats, spinach and cheese provide B vitamins, vitamin A, iron, calcium and zinc for immune function, vision, bone health and energy levels.
The corn, vegetables, chilies and seasoning used in tamales contain antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Of course, the health impacts depend partly on the fillings. Lean meats, vegetable fillings and cheeses in moderation are healthier than fatty, salty meats and fillings loaded with calories, saturated fat and preservatives. But made right, tamales can be nutritious comfort food.
Potential benefits of tamales made with wholesome ingredients include:
- Sustained energy from complex carbs
- Muscle building and satiety from protein
- Support for digestion and heart health from fiber
- Disease prevention from antioxidants
In moderation, tamales can be part of a balanced diet. They provide a dose of nutrients, vitamins and satisfaction!
Tamales are a quintessential Latin American food with a rich history spanning millennia and diThe communal ritual of making tamales fosters cultural identity and brings families together. Versatile tamale fillings appeal to diverse tastes from traditional to creative. Made well, they can even provide some nutritional benefits. For all these reasons and more, tamales are so much more than just delicious food – they nourish our souls and represent the beautiful mosaic of Latin cultures.