When most people think about Mexican food the first thing that comes to mind is tacos, burritos, and chile (hot sauce) on almost everything. But their other things like Mole sauce, Concha, and tamales that many people consume on a daily. Unlike other Central and South American countries where Tamales are usually made for special holidays like Christmas, some parts of Mexico seems to have them around all year long. Tamale is derived from the word “tamalii from the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs” (Etymology Dictionary).
The tamale is recorded to have originated in “Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC” (Hoyer) in Pre-Columbian history. As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been brought from Mexico to Central and South America. However, according to “archaeologists Karl Taube, William Saturn and David Stuart the tamales date from the year 100 AD. They found pictorial references in the Mural of San Bartolo, in Petén, Guatemala” (Saturno). Although the tamales may have moved from one country to another, as many other countries in South and Central America seem to have their own version of tamales, there is no evidence of “where the migration of the tamales went from north to south” (Saturno) or vice versa within the Americas.
In Mexico, different civilizations such as the Aztec, Mayans, Olmecs, and Toltecans “used tamales as easily portable food, for hunting trips, and for traveling large distances, as well as supporting their armies.”(Hoyer) Women were usually the ones in charge of preparing food and everything that including making it like agriculture. So some were taken along in battle as cooks, many would use corn to make the masa for the tortillas, meats, stews, drinks, etc to sustain their warriors. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, the demand for the preparation and processing the nixtamal corn became too overwhelming. So the women needed to find a way to make more “portable [and] sustaining foodstuff” (Tapp) and their creativity lead them to the birth of the tamale.
Before the Spanish conquest, tamales were an important ritual food and “considered sacred as it is the food of the gods” (Clark) and they were offered to various gods at their appointed festivals. Most regions made their own version of tamales to their own respected gods and deities. For example, “the Mexica and Azteca people offered bean tamales to the jaguar deity Tezcatlipoca and shrimp ones to Huehueteotl, the Lord of Fire. Tamales with huitlacoche (a corn fungus) honored the rain god Tlaloc, while honey and bean tamales accompanied the human sacrifices that celebrated Xipe Totec, a deity of death and rebirth who watered the fields with blood from his flayed skin” (Barksdale). Another reason the tamale was considered sacred is that of what their main ingredient is Maize (Corn).
The Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, and Toltec civilizations of ancient Mexico shared the same or similar creation myths that identified people with corn. A creation story in the Popul Vuh, an important collection of Mayan mythology, states that the “first humans were formed of mud that quickly dissolved, the second from wood that lacked a soul, and the third from corn, which gave humanity its lasting form” (Barksdale). But with the Spanish conquest, Catholicism spread throughout Central and South American countries like a wildfire. Then the tamales’ religious functions were mapped into Pagan and Christian festivals like Christmas. Today tamales are usually associated with Las Navidades (Christmas) for Latino families throughout the Americas or really special holidays.
When making a tamale, before you get to the masa or sauces, you first have to get the plantain leaves or corn husks to wrap up the tamale. Nowadays the plantain leaves are cleaned with a paper towel or clean cloth and boiled in a pot. An alternative would be to slowly be placed over a medium flame or Comal. This process would turn the leaf shiny and become soft and pliable. If corn husks are used, then they are covered with ice cold water and left to soak for at least 2 hours. There is no other way to speed up this process so its usually done first.
Back then Aztecs would fill their Tamales with meats like “turkey, flamingo, frog, Mexican salamander, pocket gopher, rabbit, and fish” (Olver) in the Pre-Columbus era (before Christopher Columbus first landing in the Americas). Basically before other European countries arrived and tried to alter or exterminate Indigenous American cultures. Today it still varies from area to area but most seem to use those that easily more accessible like chicken, beef, pork, and if close to the coast then fish.
Tamales masa can be made from nixtamalized corn, where the field corn (maize) grain is dried, then treated by soaking and cooking the corn in a dilute solution of lye (which can be produced from water and wood ash) or of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide found in limestones). The soaked maize is washed to make sure the lime doesn’t leave the corn with a bitter taste. Then allow the soaked corn to dry and follow up by grinding it into small pieces in a meat grinder or food processor so to make corn masa. What many people would do to save time nowadays would be to buy an instant masa mix, such as Maseca. Many buy and add lard or vegetable shortening to the masa for flavoring and softening. “Aztec tamales differed from modern tamales by not having added fat” (Olver) like lard into their masa. The masa could be either savory or sweet and even colored depending on the region.
Then after everything is cooked and prepared, now comes the process of assembling it all together to wrap. Drain the corn husks and select the largest ones and then use the masa as glue to combine two of the smaller husks. But if using the plantain leaf method just chose the largest leaf that wasn’t broken in the middle while cooking. Then place the husks or plantain leaf on a smooth flat surface facing side up. Then use a spoon to spread the masa on top and center of the husk/leaf. Leave space around it so to be able to wrap the insides of it. Then the cooled meat, vegetable, and other fillings depending the region are layered in a narrow band across the masa. Then tuck one edge of the husk/leaf and roll; repeat tucking and rolling until it’s like a burrito. Follow up by tying the tamales with a string of corn husk, or using the masa to glue the tamale, or wrapping it up in aluminum foil so to prevent the tamale from unraveling.
Place the tamale, flap side down, in a huge pot or tamale cooker and stack the tamales on top of one another until the pot is filled. Fill the steamer or pot with water all the way to the brim if possible or as long as it covers the tamales. If the tamales extend over the top of the pot, cover them with a wet corn husk, plantain leaf, or a damp rag. Then steam the tamales for an hour to 7 hours or until the masa seems fairly firm inside the husk/leaf. Replenish boiling water if necessary. Originally, the tamales were cooked by “burying them in hot ashes, which made them crispy and brown. However, as time progressed, the Aztecs began to implement new methods for cooking, learned from the Spanish conquistadores. At which point, steaming the tamales in underground pits or in uncovered pots became the practice” (Warner). Once they are cooked they could be warmed up when wanted or needed, this was the appeal of them back in the early civilizations of Mexico.
If a visual is needed for how to make tamales, here is one below:
It is estimated that there are an approximate of “500 types of tamales in all of Mexico”, which protect the characteristics that the ethnic groups gave them. From south to north the preparations are similar but their size, shape, and filling, depending on the location and resources available is what differentiates them. The tamale caught on and spread to many parts of the world quickly. Today they grew in variety and diversity unknown in today’s culture.
Examples of how tamales can change or be different depending on the regions just in Mexico:
In Baja California, they make tuna tamales and other calls from Güemes, which contain pork and chicken meats, olives and raisins.
In Hidalgo you can mark two large areas: the mining region of Pachuca and its surroundings, with corn cob tamales with masa, dipped in anise, even in those of chile; and the Huasteca, with banana leaf tamales and, above all, the gigantic zacahuiles, up to one meter long and forty centimeters wide, cooked like the barbecue in underground form or in an oven made of stone or adobe, and which reach contain up to a whole pork: once prepared the mass of corn that is not ground fine, but martajada in small granules, it is placed in papatla leaves inside a container made on purpose and is filled with the meat in pieces previously marinated with chilies dried red, and so gets into the earth oven dug in the ground.
In the city of Mexico, tamales in corn husk stand out with different tamales fillings like: green tomato sauce with serrano pepper and pork, poblano mole with chicken, rajas (a hot pepper) with cheese, and of sweet masa dyed pink filled with pineapple or raisins.
The Oaxacan tamale par excellence, is the corn dough and filled with black mole based on broad chiles, mulato and chilhuacle, with pork and wrapped in banana leaf.
In Puebla, extraordinary for its culinary wealth, they usually eat, in addition to tamales from the traditional poblano mole, tamales de frijoles ayocote (tamale of beans).
In Huejotzingo they make tamales of dough with fresh cheese and epazote. They are made of ground beans with chili veins and an avocado leaf, and they also have tamales pulacles with zucchini, beans, and sesame seeds.
Although many may not think of tamales first when they think of Mexican food, they hold as much history and importance like tacos. They are just more time consuming to make that needs more dedication from a person. That’s why many Hispanics tend to leave tamales for Las Navidades (Christmas) or really special occasions. But one thing that tamales, tacos, and all food have in common no matter the region is that they honor the past and our ancestors. It’s interesting if you think about it how we are probably eating the same tamale from the beginning of its creation. Then there is also the idea of how tamales have evolve and interacted with different socities nation and worldwide like in Mississippi. The possibilities that can be done with food is limitless as shown through history and time.
Barksdale, Nate. “What Goes Into a Hot Tamale?” History, A&E Television Networks, 14 Nov. 2014.
Clark, Ellen Riojas, and Carmen Tafolla. Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization: Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun. Wings Press, 2011.
Hoyer, Daniel. Tamales (1st ed.). Gibbs Smith, 2008.
Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline: Aztec, Maya & Inca Foods.” The Food Timeline, 1 Mar. 2015.
Pruneda, Ayko. “10 Tipos De Tamales Mexicanos Que Tienes Que Saborear.” Cocina Delirante, Imagen Digital.
Saturno, William A., et al. The Murals of San Bartolo, El PeteÌn, Guatemala. Center for Ancient American Studies, 2005.
“Tamale (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Online Etymology Dictionary.
Tapp, Alice G. “The History of Tamales.” Tamara’s Tamales.