Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa or dough, which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, vegetables, chilies or other ingredients. They are often served as a meal, snack or appetizer. But when is the best or most common time to eat tamales?
– Tamales are often eaten for breakfast in Latin American countries, especially on weekends or holidays. The masa and fillings provide a hearty, filling morning meal.
– Tamales can also be served as a mid-day snack or light lunch, sometimes accompanied by beans and rice or soup.
– In Mexico, tamales are frequently eaten late evening as a cena or light supper. Street vendors often sell tamales into the night.
– During holidays and festivals like Christmas, Day of the Dead, and Mexican Independence Day, tamales are eaten at all times of day as part of the celebrations.
In many Latin American countries, tamales are considered an excellent breakfast food and are often eaten in the morning, especially on weekends or holidays. The masa dough provides carbohydrates for energy, while the fillings, which can range from cheeses, meats, chilies, vegetables or sweet options like fruit or vanilla, add protein, fiber and nutrients. The tamal is portable, can be made ahead in batches, and simply reheated in the morning in a steamer pot, microwave or oven.
Some popular breakfast tamal fillings include:
– Cheese – Oaxaca, quesillo or requesón (ricotta-like) cheese
– Shredded chicken or pork
– Refried beans
– Green or red salsa
– Mild chilies like poblano or anaheim
– Raja – sliced jalapeño and onion
– Zucchini or spinach
– Sweet fillings like pineapple, raisins, apple or pumpkin
The masa can also be flavored with cilantro, jalapeños, avocado leaves or pumpkin seeds for extra taste. Tamales pair nicely with coffee, atole (a corn masa drink), horchata or juices. They provide lasting energy and fullness to start the day off right.
In Mexico, tamales are extremely popular for desayuno (breakfast), especially on weekends. Some families eat tamales every Saturday or Sunday morning, sometimes buying them from a neighborhood vendor. Tamales make excellent breakfast fare before church on Sundays. Common fillings include salsa verde with pork, chicken with tomato/chile sauce, beans with cheese or zucchini with spinach.
Guatemalan breakfast tamales, or tamalitos, are smaller in size and feature unique sweet and savory fillings like potatoes, chicharrón (fried pork belly), jalapeño and cheese, rice or bananas. They are usually accompanied by coffee or hot chocolate.
In Cuba, tamales de cazuela with seasoned pork inside a maize masa are traditional morning fare, especially on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) but also on regular weekends.
Throughout Central America, tamales are considered excellent desayuno foods. In Costa Rica, tamales are served for breakfast with sour cream or tomato dipping sauce. El Salvador offers revueltas for breakfast – chickpea tamales steamed inside corn husks. Sweet breakfast tamales are popular in Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama.
While heartier and more filling than some other midday meals, tamales can also make an excellent lightweight lunch or daytime snack. Their portability makes them ideal for taking to work or school. Usually, the portions are slightly smaller than breakfast tamales.
Some popular midday tamale fillings:
– Shredded beef or chicken tinga
– Jalapeño and cheese
– Green tomatillo salsa with pinto or black beans
– Mole – chicken in a thick, rich chocolate and chili sauce
– Rajas – sliced chilies and onions
– Picadillo – spiced ground meat
Lunch tamales are often accompanied by:
– Rice and beans
– Soup (pozole, caldo)
– Guacamole, salsa, crema
The food provides a satisfying meal balanced with protein, carbs, vegetables and condiments. Tamales can be ordered to go from taquerias, cafes, loncherias and street vendors and taken back to school or the office to eat.
In Mexico, smaller tamales are popular midday snacks, especially from street vendors and markets. Some common fillings include mole, carnitas, chicken tinga, rajas con queso, or queso con chile.
In Guatemala, people commonly grab a few tamalitos from a vendor to eat at school or work around lunchtime. Popular options are chicken, jalapeño/cheese, black beans or plain cheese.
Salvadoran restaurants and pupuserías often serve a “menu del día” featuring 2-3 tamales alongside rice, curtido slaw, beans and a drink. Tamales make a nice light lunch.
At Costa Rican soda shops, which offer traditional casados, a couple of tamales are a frequent accompaniment on the plate for an affordable, filling lunch.
In Mexico, tamales are also eaten as an evening meal called “cena” between 6-9pm. Cena is the lightest meal of the day, since the main meal is lunch. Street vendors frequently sell tamales into the night, with popular options being mole, pork in red or green salsa, rajas con queso (chiles and cheese) or sweet fillings.
Some perfect pairings for evening tamales:
– Atole – warm, thick corn beverage
– Champurrado – chocolate thick drink
– Cafe de Olla – coffee with cinnamon
– Hot fruit punch
– Fresh juices like orange, carrot or sugarcane
– Agua Frescas like horchata or tamarindo
Evening tamal cenas provide a satisfying but not overly heavy end to the day. The masa is filling but easier to digest than some proteins. Tamales are comfort food, so they make a great nighttime meal.
At Christmas time, tamales take center stage in Mexico and other Latin American countries. On Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and Navidad (Christmas Day), families spend hours preparing and cooking up to a dozen different tamal fillings. Tamales are then eaten nonstop, for breakfast, snack, dinner, late night meal – you name it – and washed down with champurrado and ponche (fruit punch). Christmas is peak tamal eating time.
Day of the Dead
For Día de los Muertos celebrations from November 1st – 2nd, tamales are ubiquitous. In particular, tamales de ceniza (tamales with ash) wrapped in black corn husks are traditional offerings placed on Day of the Dead altars and eaten communally. But all types of tamales are prepared and eaten over the holiday as families gather to remember loved ones.
September 16th marks Mexican Independence Day, or el Día de la Independencia. The celebrations always include an abundance of tamales. Many towns host festivals and parades where tamales are sold and eaten all day and night long.
How Tamales Are Served
Now that we’ve covered the most common times for eating tamales, let’s look at how they are typically served and presented.
|Street vendor||Tamales sold from large steamer pots by street and market vendors. Usually still warm, bundled in paper or corn husks.|
|Plated meal||2-4 tamales served as the entree with sides like rice, beans, salad, salsa on a plate.|
|Single unwrapped||Just one fresh, unwrapped tamal served on a plate or in a bowl.|
|Batch wrapped||Tamales wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves or paper tied into bundles of 6-12.|
|Potluck style||Large tray or steamer filled with a couple dozen tamales of mixed fillings for self-serve.|
|Street food||Served from a food cart, lonchera, or as take-out with plastic utensils and salsa/toppings.|
Tamales are versatile – they can be served formally plated or informally bundled for grabbing on the go. The masa locks in the flavor, so they taste great at any temperature.
Tamal Recipes by Meal
Now let’s provide some examples of excellent tamal recipes perfect for each mealtime we’ve discussed:
Breakfast Tamal Recipes
– Sweet Tamales – Masa flavored with cinnamon, filled with raisins and pineapple chunks.
– Chaya Tamales – Masa mixed with chaya leaves, filled with egg, onion, jalapeno, and cheese. Topped with salsa verde.
– Bean and Cheese Tamales – Refried beans layered with queso fresco in the masa.
– Rajas and Cheese Tamales – Strips of roasted poblano pepper and melted cheese filling.
Lunch Tamal Recipes
– Chicken Mole Tamales – Shredded chicken in a rich, savory mole sauce.
– Pork Chile Verde Tamales – Pulled pork in a tasty salsa verde filling.
– Vegetable Tamales – Zucchini, corn, poblano, onion, squash and cheese masa.
– Chipotle Chicken Tamales – Shredded chicken in adobo chipotle sauce.
Dinner Tamal Recipes
– Oaxaca Cheese Tamales – Melted Oaxacan cheese wrapped in banana leaf.
– Red Pork Tamales – Tender pork in a guajillo chili sauce.
– Green Chicken Tamales – Shredded chicken breast in a tangy salsa verde.
– Jalapeno and Sweet Corn Tamales – In a masa with cream corn and pepper Jack cheese.
Tamales can be enjoyed morning, noon or night in Mexico, Central America, and Latin American communities worldwide. Their versatility and portability make them an excellent meal or snack any time of day. During holidays and celebrations, tamal consumption reaches a peak as they are cooked and eaten for days on end. Whether you like sweet or savory, meat or cheese fillings, tamales have a perfect place on your breakfast, lunch or dinner table. Their amazing diversity means you’ll never get bored of tamales!