Mexican tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (corn dough) stuffed with a savory or sweet filling and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. Tamales have been an important part of Mexican cuisine for thousands of years, dating back to the time of the Aztecs and Mayans. Today, tamales are eaten all over Mexico and come in a wide variety of fillings and preparations.
There are many different types of tamales found across Mexico. The main categories are:
These tamales are filled with meats, cheeses, chilies, vegetables or other robust ingredients and make a hearty main dish. Some common varieties include:
- Tamales de pollo – Filled with shredded chicken and mild red sauce.
- Tamales verdes – Stuffed with pork and tomatillo sauce.
- Tamales de mole – Contain shredded chicken and rich, complex mole sauce.
- Tamales oaxaqueños – Filled with dark, stringy mole negro sauce and chicken or pork.
- Tamales de rajas – Stuffed with strips of roasted poblano peppers and cheese.
These tamales have sweet fillings and make excellent breakfasts or desserts. Some popular options are:
- Tamales de elote – Sweet corn tamales
- Tamales de piña – Filled with pineapple
- Tamales de chocolate – Stuffed with chocolate
- Tamales de fresa – Filled with strawberries
- Tamales de nuez – With a pecan filling
Beyond the main savory and sweet categories, tamales vary greatly by region across Mexico. Each area has its own specialties:
Oaxaca – Known for complex mole negro and mole rojo tamales and using banana leaves for wrapping.
Veracruz – Tamales huastecos stuffed with pork, tomato, chili and wrapped in banana leaves.
Jalisco – Tamales nejos with blue corn masa and fillings like pineapple, strawberry or beans.
Yucatán – Tamales colados made with a very wet, almost soupy masa. Common fillings are chicken or pork in tomato sauce.
Mexico City – Tamales de dulce filled with candied squash, sweet potato or chocolate.
Sinaloa – Use red wheat masa and fillings like diced ham, bell peppers, olives and chili strips.
Puebla – Known for humitas – sweet, fresh corn tamales cooked in corn husks.
While recipes vary, the basic process for making tamales is:
- Make the masa – The dough is made from corn that has been nixtamalized by cooking and soaking in limewater. The soaked corn is ground into masa.
- Prepare the filling – The savory or sweet filling of choice is cooked and/or chopped to the proper consistency for stuffing.
- Spread masa – A layer of masa is spread onto a corn husk or banana leaf, with the thickness depending on the region.
- Stuff the tamale – A spoonful of filling is placed in the center of the masa.
- Roll it up – The husk or leaf is folded around the filled masa and tied shut with string or a strip of husk/leaf.
- Steam the tamales – The wrapped tamales are cooked by steaming for 1-2 hours until the masa is firm.
It takes considerable time and effort to make tamales by hand. In Mexico, making tamales is often a communal family tradition during holidays and celebrations. Large batches of tamales are prepared and shared.
Tamales for Different Occasions
Tamales are found at all types of Mexican meals and events. A few examples are:
- Daily meals – Hearty tamales are often served as the main course accompanied by beans, rice, salsa and tortillas.
- Breakfast – Sweet tamales make for a delicious morning meal.
- Christmas – Tamales are an integral part of Christmas (Navidad) traditions. Families gather to make batches of tamales on Christmas Eve.
- Day of the Dead – Tamales are one of the iconic foods left on Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) altars as offerings for departed loved ones.
- Weddings – Tamales are considered good luck at weddings. The bride and groom may take turns trying to eat one long tamale strand from opposite ends until their lips meet in a kiss.
- Street food – Tamales are a popular street food. Vendors keep them warm in steaming pots or grills.
No Mexican celebration would be complete without tamales making an appearance in some form!
Tamales are well-balanced and nutritious when made with wholesome ingredients. Here are the nutrition facts for a 100g serving of pork tamales:
The masa offers complex carbohydrates. Fillings like meat, cheese and vegetables provide protein, healthy fats and essential nutrients. Overall, tamales make a satisfying meal rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Vegan and Vegetarian Options
There are plenty of tasty tamale fillings for vegans and vegetarians to enjoy. Some good meatless options include:
- Black beans – Spicy and protein-rich
- Cheese – Oaxaca, queso fresco or other Mexican cheeses
- Mushrooms – Earthy and hearty
- Potatoes – For a hearty, comforting tamale
- Tomatoes, chilies and onions – For a flavorful veggie blend
- Sweet potatoes – Make a nice, bright filling
- Plantains – Sweet and starchy comfort food
The masa can also be made vegan by using vegetable shortening instead of lard. There are countless creative recipes to make sure vegans don’t miss out on tamale enjoyment.
Where to Find Tamales
While home-cooked tamales are always best, there are still many places to find quality tamales when you don’t have the time or resources to make them from scratch. Here are some spots to pick up great tamales:
- Mercados – Outdoor markets, especially in central Mexico, will have vendors selling tamales made that day using traditional techniques.
- Taquerias – Many taco shops also serve tamales and they usually have excellent authentic options.
- Carnicerías – Butcher shops and meat markets often sell high-quality tamales with flavorful meat fillings.
- Panaderías – Bakeries are a good spot to find sweet tamales and other tamal varietals.
- Restaurants – From street food stalls to high-end restaurants, tamales are easy to find on menus across Mexico.
- Supermarkets – For a quick, convenient option, tamales can often be found in the freezer or prepared food sections of Mexican grocery stores.
With tamales’ huge popularity in Mexican cuisine, it’s not hard to track down an authentic and delicious version to satisfy a tamale craving.
How to Eat Tamales
One of the great things about tamales is that they can be served in so many ways! Here are some tips on enjoying tamales:
- As a main dish – Serve 2-3 tamales per person along with rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, tortillas and other sides.
- For breakfast or dessert – Sweet tamales are perfect on their own or with coffee or atole (a hot corn beverage).
- With salsa and toppings – Open the husk or leaf and top the tamale with salsa, queso fresco, sour cream, onion, cilantro, etc.
- In soups and stews – Unwrap the tamales and add them to hearty soups and stews for extra texture and flavor.
- As street food – No utensils required! Grab a tamale from the vendor and eat it like a taco.
Part of the fun of tamales is customizing them with toppings and eating methods. Share tamales family-style and let guests assemble and enjoy them creatively.
Tamales are a cherished staple of Mexican culinary traditions. They come in sweet and savory varieties with endless regional diversity across Mexico. Tamales bring families and friends together in the kitchen during holidays and celebrations. When homemade isn’t an option, quality tamales can still be found from street vendors, restaurants and markets. No matter how you eat them, tamales are the ultimate comfort food and a tasty way to experience authentic Mexican cuisine!