Tamales: a new gastronomic proposal

04/01/2021

To talk about tamales is to talk about a whole ancestral tradition that is still in force. With the passing of time, it has become stronger thanks to the cultural and festive diversity that exists in Mexico. Its origin dates back to pre-Hispanic times, its main base is corn. No matter what type it is, here what varies is the filling and the leaves with which they are wrapped: banana, corn, and maguey, etc.

Tamales in the making. Photo by Quiony Navarro from Pexels
Tamales in the making. Photo by Quiony Navarro from Pexels

The tamale (from the Nahuatl word tamalli, meaning wrapped) is a generic name given to several American dishes of indigenous origin generally prepared with cooked corn dough wrapped in corn leaves or from the same plant, banana, bijao, maguey, avocado, or even aluminum or plastic foil. They may or may not have a filling, which may contain meat, vegetables, chili, fruits, sauce, etc. They can also be sweet or salty flavored.

The origin of the tamale has been disputed by several countries in the Americas, however, not enough evidence has been obtained to attribute it to any particular culture or country. Various varieties of tamales have been developed in almost all countries of the American continent, especially in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, the countries of Central America, and other countries of the Americas where corn is predominant in the diet.

It should be noted that the origin of corn was probably in the central region of Mexico, from where it spread to the rest of the Americas. There is evidence that the predominant cultures in Mexico that brought corn to other cultures and regions also brought with them dishes and ways of cooking it, being the tamale a simple method of cooking corn.

It is possible to think that the tamale was invented in the region where corn originated, that is, Mexico, and from there it was taken to other cultures and regions. However, the cultural exchange could also have brought the tamale from another region to Mexico.

Although Mexico has the greatest variety of tamales than any other country or region, this is not an indication of the age of the tamale, as Mexico also has the greatest cultural diversity and each culture developed its own variant of corn.

Tamales are described in Mexico by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España a principios del siglo XVI.

They also ate tamales in many ways; some of them are white and pella-like, made not quite round or square...Other tamales they ate are red...

Archaeological evidence shows the tamale as part of the daily life of some cultures in Mexico in pre-Hispanic times, as well as being used in religious rituals, offerings, and tombs. However, this evidence is very recent, for example, from the classic Mayan period.

Mexican tamales

No country has as much diversity of tamales as Mexico. Each region and state has certain types of tamales, so many that the variety is estimated at between 500 and 5,000 throughout the country.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún tells of a certain superstition among the indigenous people:

Another aberration they had when they cooked tamales in the pot. Some stick to the pot, like the meat when it is cooked, and it sticks to the pot. They said that the one who ate that tamale stuck, if he was a man, would never shoot arrows well in the war, and his wife would never give birth well. And if it was a woman, she would never give birth well, and the child would stick it to her.

Today, tamales are an important part of the Mexican diet, very popular in Christmas parties, posadas, and baptismal celebrations. They are also used as offerings in the Day of the Dead festivities, celebrated on November 1 and 2, and in celebration of Candlemas, which symbolizes the end of the Advent period of the Catholic liturgical year.

Every year in Mexico City the Latin American Tamale Fair is celebrated on the first days of November, coinciding with the celebration of the Day of the Dead. In the week before February 2, the Feria del Tamal is celebrated in commemoration of Candlemas day.

As a curious fact, the tamale has its place in the popular sayings of Mexico, among which one that is still used is, "He who is born for a tamale, from heaven the leaves fall", which refers to that one cannot escape his destiny, or that providence favors those who are carrying out their mission in life.

Definition of tamales

A culinary description of tamal is a mixture of batter with fat, stuffed and seasoned according to the way of each place, wrapped in corn or banana leaf and steamed. From the pre-Hispanic era, in the Aztec Imperial cuisine And at the Moctezuma table, the tamal has been an important part of Mexican cuisine

Ethno-historical vision: Tamales with fried machas and guacamole. Photo: Tavallai via Flickr
Ethno-historical vision: Tamales with fried machas and guacamole. Photo: Tavallai via Flickr

Carlos Lumhotz, in his book Unknown Mexico, mentions "the ritual tamales" (tamales in honor of the gods) found among the Huicholes of Jalisco, Tarascans of Michoacán, Tarahumara of Chihuahua, and Tepehuanes of Durango. The word tamal comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, which appears in the prehispanic vocabulary elaborated by Alonso de Molina, a dictionary of the XXI century.

Let's see what the Mexican Cook tells us in the form of a dictionary, 1888 about the definition of the tamale and its varieties:

"Tamal: Voice that brings its origin from the Mexican Tamalli, and means a kind of tasty and delicate bread, made with the mass of corn, which the ancient inhabitants of this continent used more than the tortillas that were their common bread, as they are so until the day not only of their descendants but of many others who descend from the Spaniards, who eat them for pleasure. The same happens with the tamales, which are not taken to replace bread, but rather with it an appetite, because they are very pleasing to the palate, at the same time as nutritious and of good digestion. "

Ingredients for the tamale dough

Dough

Butter

Beef calx (or cinnamon infusion for sweet tamales)

Baking powder, tequizquite, or tomato leaf cooking

Salt (or sugar to taste for sweet tamales).

Preparation

Accrete butter. Add alternately the meat and flour dish previously stirred with the salt and baking powder (or the tequizquite or tomato leaf cooking). Beat the mixture until it is at its point, this is when dropping a bit of dough into a glass of water, that is floating on the surface. If it disintegrates or goes to the bottom, it is necessary to beat a little more. The consistency of the dough should be smooth if it is a little hard to add more meat or water soup and continue beating.

How to make tamales

Wash the corn leaves thoroughly with water, then soak them for about an hour and drain thoroughly. Take leaf by leaf, on the concave side, and apply a spoonful of the dough, then put a little filling in the center. Double and form the tamale. As you do, place them vertically in a tamale pot, steamer, or prepared pot.

Steam without getting wet and without water reaching its level, for an hour until it is easily detached from the leaf. You can use nixtamal masa for tortillas, or nixtamalized special flour for tamales. If the flour is used, it must be moistened with a little stock (pork or beef) warm and strained, until it reaches the consistency of the dough. A kilo of lard is usually used for two kilos of dough.

First butter is beaten (it is recommended that it is cold) in a large bowl. A wooden spoon is used. Coldwater is added little by little until the butter is white and fluffy. A kilo of butter takes approximately 30 minutes to reach this point. You can also melt the butter instead of beating it. To the whipped butter add the dough or flour (previously moistened with broth), broth, and baking powder, as indicated by the recipe. The mixture of dough or flour with butter should be light or fluffy.

The broth that is added to the dough should be warm and strained (as indicated in most recipes). It is known that the dough does not need more broth when it does not drain when putting it on the sheet that will wrap the tamale. The dough is ready and has the necessary lightness when a ball (half a teaspoon) put in a glass of cold water does not sink.

The wrap of the tamale

It is very important to properly treat the leaves that are used to wrap the tamales. The function of the leaves is to shape and enclose them gently during cooking in certain cases also provide aromatic elements.

Types of tamale leaves

Corn leaves are those that wrap the fresh corn, are tender and flexible. They are separated from the corn using a knife, carefully, trying to keep them whole. Wash them and dry them. With one or two leaves each tamale is wrapped, the ends are bent and tied with a strip taken from a large leaf.

The dry leaf of the ear or the dry leaf is called totomoxtle, with them, bundles are formed and, with several bundles, large moored wheels that are sold in the markets, to make them flexible they are left to soak in water for two or more hours, as they dry that they are.

Maize leaves of milpa are the leaves of corn plants not of the ears. They are used when they are still green, fresh, and tender; If necessary, soak in water for a few minutes. They wash and dry; they are used almost exclusively for the small tamales typical of Michoacán called corundas.

Banana leaves: with a well-cut knife the central rib of the leaf is trimmed, starting at the tip. Cut into square pieces of 30 cm. on the side, discarding the broken or perforated parts. To soften the banana leaves there are three methods. Boiling them in water or putting them in a water bath (30-20 min.)

Passing the square pieces by a hot comal first on one side and then on the other, until they are flexible and change color. Put them in bundles in the microwave oven for one minute.

Tamales wrapped in other leaves

Occasionally tamales are wrapped in reed leaves, chaya (in the Yucatecan tamalito called tzotobilchay), holy leaf (also called acuyo or momo), spinach, chilaca, etc. When the leaves are not flexible, they are left in water for a few minutes, for the lashing a string is used, without tightening a lot.

Tamales in the world

In the United States

Tamales have become a very common dish in the United States - especially in the southern states - thanks to the great cultural exchange with Mexico and the Spanish-speaking community. In the Southwest, it is typically prepared around Christmas. The traditional word in English is tamale (the result of removing the finals from the plural tamales to form the singular).

However, it is increasingly common to say tamale, particularly in regions with Spanish-speaking communities, as for some it seems illiterate to say tamale. The tamale has been adapted to North American tastes and new varieties have been created by adding different fillings to the traditional tamale.

In Central America

In Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Bolivia they are usually prepared with corn dough, lard, broth, and some filling that can be salty (meat, stew) or sweet (fruits), all wrapped in leaves, usually the same leaves of the corn cob or banana tree. The cooking is steamed or in an oven.

In Guatemala

In the classic time of the Mayas, for the winter solstice, on December 21st, the great Mayan lords were delighted with a bun of cooked dough, which they mixed with turkey meat, tepezcuintle, or venison. Later, gastronomic elements such as spices, olives, capers, and chili peppers, among others, were added to the dough.

Over the years, this food became part of the traditions of Guatemalans, whose tradition on Christmas Eve is that families give out black, red, or sweet tamales to family and friends as a sign of appreciation.

They are served with chocolate, egg yolk bread and punch, after participating in Midnight Mass. It is customary in Guatemala to taste a dish at midnight on December 24 and 31.

While the gunpowder expresses the joy of the Christmas and New Year holidays, the palate receives the whim of this mestizo dish, known as tamale. Turkey, grapes, and apples may be missing from the Christmas festivities during New Year's Eve, but the traditional sweet and salty tamales are never missing. Guatemalans also use tamales for celebrations of holidays, birthdays, baptisms, etc, so the tamale is considered a very important dish in the culture of Guatemala.

The tamale is so famous in Guatemala that it even exists in its sweet version, in which the same corn dough is used, but it is seasoned with a sweet treat made of chocolate, almonds, plums, seeds, and chilies.

Types of Guatemalan tamales

The red tamales owe their name to the tomato, made with corn dough, stuffed with errands, raisins, chilies, chicken, beef, or pork, wrapped in banana leaves.

There are the cambray tamales, which contain raisins and almonds, the sweet tamales filled with sweet stuffing, the black tamales, which have this name because of the color given by the chocolate, chipilín tamales wrapped in corn leaves, loroco tamales, and corn tamales among others.

The chuchitos a variation of the Guatemalan tamale

Chuchitos is a very typical and emblematic dish in Guatemala. It is a variation of the tamale made from corn dough but with a much firmer consistency. It is usually mixed with a tomato filling that can be chicken, beef, or pork, wrapped with tusas (dried leaves that wrap around the corn). The chuchito is usually accompanied by a tomato sauce and sprinkled with hard Zacapa cheese. It is a very common dish among the population of Guatemala and is the main guest at lunches, dinners, and celebrations.

In Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, different types of tamales are prepared, some of them made of ground tender corn, with sour cream and cheese, others with or without a sweet and cheese filling and wrapped with the same corn leaf or banana tree. In addition, tamales filled with meat are prepared, which are called Nacatamales.

Nacatamales are made of corn dough, pork fat, pork, or chicken, prepared with achiote, rice, potato, mint, tomato, chili, and in some cases olives, raisins, and plums, this is to taste. All this mixture is wrapped in banana tree leaves, tied with vegetable fiber from the same banana tree, and boiled for about 4 hours.

The Nacatamal is a usual weekend meal, because on Saturdays and Sundays you can see small signs announcing the product in towns, cities, and regions throughout the country.

In El Salvador and Costa Rica

Apart from the traditional pork or chicken tamales (which are the most common), there are also other varieties, always based on corn, among them: those of chipilín (scientific name of the plant: crotalaraia longirostrata), in which leaves of this vegetable are incorporated into the dough, the so-called "pishques", made from ground beans mixed with corn and ash. Both types use banana or plantain leaves as wrapping and lack a filling.

Additionally, corn tamales are also consumed, whose main ingredient is ground corn grains (elote) mixed with milk or butter, they do not have a filling and are wrapped in the leaves of the same corn (elote), can also be eaten fried.

The "ball" tamales, so-called because of their spherical shape, are basically made of corn dough wrapped in tuzas (corn husks), without a filling or additional ingredient. The purpose of the ball tamales, was initially to replace the tortillas at Easter, a time when the nixtamal mills did not work out of respect for the faith, but now, with the advent of the cornflour already prepared, these tamales have tended to disappear like the nixtamal mills.

Finally, in El Salvador, sweet tamales are known as "de azúcar" and their filling is usually based on raisins. This type of tamale has also become increasingly scarce.

In the Dominican Republic

Tamales in the Dominican Republic are called pastel en hoja, where instead of corn, mainly food is used. Among the most commonly used foods for the preparation of this dish are: green guineos, yautías, green or ripe bananas, auyamas, and yams.

Beef, chicken, pork, and even vegetables are usually used for the filling. Traditionally, the sheet cake is wrapped in banana peel once it has been made, although sometimes waxed or cellulose paper is also used.

In Colombia

In Colombia there are different varieties of tamales; depending on the region for example: In Cauca tamales have peanuts, llaneros (hallacas) have turtle meat, los costinos are made in December to celebrate the New Year (like in Venezuela), etc.

The most famous Colombian tamales are those of Tolima; a department located in the central region of the country; basically, the tamale is composed of corn flour, rice and peas, accompanied by boiled egg, a slice of carrot, a portion of bacon, pork and a chicken, seasoned slightly with salt and pepper, all cooked and wrapped in a banana leaf, usually served with arepa or bread and chocolate. It is a quite traditional dish and is usually eaten on weekends.

In Argentina

It is traditionally made from corn flour and anco (a variety of pumpkin), and is filled with pig's head meat, raisins, eggs, and seasoning. It is covered with "chala" (dried corn leaf) and tied. It is cooked in a pot with boiling water and salt. This type of food is common in the northern zone, in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. However, in the south of Argentina, it is not very common to eat these dishes.

In Peru

Peruvian anthropologist Humberto Rodríguez Pastor highlights the tamale as an Afro-Peruvian legacy in his work "Life in the Peruvian Tamale Environment". The aforementioned tamale is introduced in this territory in the first years of the Spanish presence that came with their slaves mainly from the Atlantic coast of the African continent.

In the Gastronomy of Peru there are different types of tamales according to the region of origin, although they are prepared throughout the country: On the coast, they are prepared with beef, pork, or chicken. Some add boiled eggs, olives, or boiled peanuts. The Norteños, prepare it with coriander (cilantro), which makes it take on the color green.

10 indispensable types of tamales worth trying

Corundas, Michoacán

There's nothing more beautiful than these little triangular tamales. The corundas are originally from the state of Michoacán, but are known throughout western Mexico, as in the states of Jalisco and Colima. In pre-Columbian times they were commonly known as palace rolls since, according to history, they were a dish served in important ceremonies of Purepecha princes, accompanied by meat and sauces. With the passage of time, this recipe has been modified. Today they are bathed in green or red sauce with pieces of grilled cheese and cream. They are wrapped in leaves from the corn plant. A Michoacan must-have, whether made of butter or ash, its flavour and preparation is unique.

The word k'urhunda comes from the Purepecha language, typical of the indigenous people of the region, and is translated into Spanish as tamal. The corundas are simple, made with vegetables, cheese and tequesquite scrambled with the dough, wrapped in the leaf of the corn plant, and given a conical or pyramidal triangular shape.

They are also generally smaller than the typical tamales from the rest of the country. The corn used for the dough has often been boiled in ashes instead of lime. It is usually served with cream and green or red sauce. It is the main component of corundas soup, and accompanies another typical dish, churipo.

There is a variant of corundas, the charikurindas, whose main ingredient is beans instead of corn. In addition to corundas, it is customary to make tamales filled with meat and chile, similar to the typical tamales in the rest of the country, although here they are called nacatamales. The uchepo is another typical tamale of the state, generally of the sweet type.

Vaporcitos, Yucatan

The dough is thin and the filling can be chicken, pork, turkey, or pork. They are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, hence the name vaporcitos. They are also called torteados because of the way the dough is spread before they are filled. It is recommended to accompany them with habanero sauce, a typical chile of the region. In this state, you can also try the maculan tamales wrapped in holly leaf, the chaya tamales, the colados, and the mucbi chicken, a traditional Mayan dish.

Oaxaqueños, Oaxaca

It is common to generalize as an Oaxacan tamale to anyone wrapped in banana leaf regardless of the filling, but what differentiates the traditional Oaxacan recipe from all those made in the rest of the country is the unique mole of the region. It is usually prepared with a thin layer of corn dough, and is filled with pork or shredded chicken. It is bathed with mole negro and is usually accompanied by chocolate with water.

Traditionally made with corn dough and wrapped in banana leaf or corn husk (although they are less common). Generally made of pork or chicken with black mole, they can also be made of iguana meat, filled with yellow mole and chipilin.

De Ollita, State of Mexico

It is common to get the typical corn tamales with green or red sauce, accompanied by pork or chicken. The great demand for them has caused the birth of companies dedicated to their production and sale, such as the Flor de Lis tamales (of long tradition), Emporio and Tamalli tamales, of the style of the center of the country, or the Chata tamales of the state of Sinaloa. In this city, they are consumed either naturally or inside a wheat bread (torta), a combination known as guajolota, accompanied by exquisite atole.

In the municipality of Ocoyoacac, tamales are made that, because of their name, refer to an ollita, also called de hoyito, de cazuelita, chuchulucos, or de tuza; this last name was given in pre-Hispanic times, due to the proximity of the municipality to the marshes of the Lerma River where tuzas abounded, whose meat was used to fill them. They continue to be a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. As they are hollow, they are filled with abundant green or red sauce and a touch of beef or pork.

Zacahuil, Huasteca Veracruz

Its name comes from the Nahuatl word zacahuilli, which in Spanish means "with a taste of grass". It is a tamale so large that one piece can hold up to 10 people. The dough is made of shredded corn and lard. The filling can be pork, chicken, or turkey, plus salsa and spices. It is wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a wood-fired oven. It is common to find it in the markets, the cooks sell it in individual portions to take away and share at home. It is very common to eat it on Sundays, on square days and at weddings.

Chipilin, Chiapas

Although there are many variations of this tamale in the southeastern states of the country, the main base for preparing it, as its name implies, is the chipilín, a kind of quelite that gives it its characteristic flavour. It is made with masa colada mixed with chipilín leaves, broth, and lard. It is given a rectangular shape and wrapped in banana leaves. It is accompanied by tomato sauce and fresh cheese.

De muerto, Querétaro

It is named for two reasons: the first is because it is made with blue corn dough, a color that is related to mourning; the second is because it is a dish that is offered to the faithful departed on the Day of the Dead. The bluish dough is seasoned with salt and piloncillo. They are usually small and are filled with a cheese and chile ancho paste.

Barbones, Sinaloa

They originated in the coastal town of Escuinapa, in the south of the state, and for decades have been the livelihood of many in the municipality. As their name implies, they are stuffed with shrimp and are called barbones because they leave their heads along with their beards outside. The shrimp have their skin removed and are seasoned with salt, pepper, and cumin. They are wrapped with the typical corn leaf. The barbeque tamales are those where the head and 'beards' of the shrimp come out of the tamale.

Dulce, Mexico City

The dough contains grated pestle or sugar; raisins are added to it and it is commonly pink in color. In ancient times this shade was obtained from the cochineal.

Nejo, Guerrero

Corn dough cooked with ash is used and it is filled with petals of suchipal flower. The tradition is to eat it during the Easter and Day of the Dead festivities.