If you're someone who loves eating Mexican food, chances are good that tamales are in your top 10. These little bundles of flavor are great for any meal or snack. Tamales are deceptively simple and very diverse.
From the Mississippi 'hot tomale' to the 'bollo' of Beilize, tamales have captured the Americas with bundles of deliciousness. The tamale is older than the corn it's commonly made from. Its portability, calorie-dense, and tasty characteristics are the perfect combination.
A lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into the making of tamales for centuries. The history of tamales is one worth exploring, considering its ancient roots and evolution. Let's revisit it and see if we can't discover why hot tamales are so hot and why we love them so much.
What is a Traditional Tamale?
There's a lot of food out there, especially in the frozen and pre-packaged section that masquerades as a tamale. Sometimes, you'll purchase one of these processed foods and bite into a bland, ambiguous substance.
A traditional tamale is made with corn husk on the outside. Inside it is a layer of corn 'masa' and some type of meat. A tamale without these three ingredients is nothing but an imposter. Traditional tamales are also steamed or boiled, not fried or baked.
Processed tamales always come out too soft and resemble more of a corn enchilada than anything. The classic tamale is one of the tastiest types of Mexican food when made authentically.
Ancient History of Tamales
Tamale is derived from the word "tamal" in Nahuatl. This was the Aztec's primary language during the height of their empire. Tamales were also called "uah" by Mayans, "pibs" by the Yucatans, "hallaquitas" by Venezuelans, and "humitas" by those living south of the Equator. No matter what they were called, the formation of the tamale was the same.
The origin of tamales is traced all the way back to 7,000 B.C. in the Aztec empire. Back then, there wasn't corn as we know it today. The precursor to modern maize, called teocintle, was the basis of the tamale.
Teocintle was valued for its sweet-tasting stalks, originally. As the natives picked it and pollinated them, they discovered its robust and delicious corn. The corn we use today is much less nutrient-dense and more susceptible to disease.
And these little tasty food staples were more than just that, they had religious significance. The Aztecs would serve their tamales to their respective deities. In fact, Teocintle was the name of the god of maize. The same goes for the Mayans, Olmecs, and Toltecs.
There were different types of tamales made for each god, too. Traditional bean tamales were served to the jaguar deity Texcatlicpoca, shrimp-based ones were for the god Huehueteotl. There were also "huitlacotche" tamales made with a powerful fungus that grew on the maize. This was served to the rain god Tlaloc.
The sweeter, more dessert tamales made with honey and bean were reserved for Xipe Totec, a deity of death and rebirth.
Post-colonial Modern History
Once the ancient civilizations were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, much of the tamale tradition was appropriated. The history of tamales carried on into Christian and Catholic traditions. You can find tamales being served as Christmas dishes and Candelaria festivals.
Tamales remained a pivotal staple of sustenance for poor indigenous communities. Authentic Mexican restaurants retain the labor-intensive recipes of tamales that were made for centuries. These recipes were passed down through generations, despite having to combat years of attacks and attempts to erase cultural traditions.
Tamales are not easily replicated by outsiders and non-indigenous cooks. Some recipes involve over 100 steps and hours of preparation before taking hours to cook. The biggest obstacles are grinding the corn from scratch, adding the right spices, and cooking times. This is why most pre-made tamales lack any real definition or texture.
In the 19th Century, Mexican bourgeoisie tied the "tamal" to poverty. This food staple was looked upon as the reason for the poor health of peasants. The Mexican Revolution removed these treasonous leaders who shamed the poor for being poor and the tamal was reborn as the symbol of Mexican cuisine.
If you're eating at an authentic Mexican restaurant, there should be at least one offering of tamales on the menu. Only in rare cases will you not see them on the menu, usually for smaller restaurants.
Tamales Travel to the U.S.
Our next stop in tamale history takes us across the border into the U.S. Although, tamales most likely arrived during 19th Century colonial times, they really took off during the late 1800's. Major Spanish-speaking communities in places like California, Texas, and Arizona had tamale stands everywhere.
Tamales filled the streets of Los Angeles so much, the government fought to eradicate them. The people would not stand for such an attack on Mexican culture, and those efforts were largely unsuccessful. San Antonio, Texas were able to ban tamale carts in most major metropolitan places.
While the anti-tamale propaganda was successful in most parts of the country, these bundles of flavor caught fire in the Mississippi Delta. This is where the famous "hot tamales" were born.
The reason why tamales took root in the Delta is largely due to the black community's adoption, alongside the Mexican communities. They were adapted into a form of soul food, replacing the regular ground maize filling with cornmeal. Mississippi Delta's hot tamales are boiled in a spicy broth, giving them their red color and spicy flavor.
The Variety of the Tamale
As you can see, the tamale is found all across the Americas. Because of this, you can find such a wide range of recipes and ingredients used. These can vary by regional crops, cultural traditions, and seasonal ingredients.
Tamales were actually more diverse than even today. Homogenization of modern diets, crops, and culture has limited the varieties. That's not to say that migration and fusion cuisine hasn't breathed new life into the tamale.
To give you an idea of just how diverse the tamale was centuries ago, here's a list of just some of the fillings:
Fish, chicken, egg, cheese, frog, quail, rabbit, ox, turkey, gopher, squirrel, bees, stewed beef, lamb, goat, boar, ants, crickets, and dried meats. For vegetables you have: mushrooms, squash, tomato, spinach, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, jalapenos, and more.
Tamales also come with sweets, fruits, and crunchy fillings, like: chocolate, bananas, berries, raisins, honey, seeds, nuts, beans, pineapple, pumpkin, avocado, and dates.
That's a lot of different ingredients, which can be further customized by spices, wrappings, and cooking. For example, there are green, red, and black chili varieties to choose from. You have various wraps, such as banana and avocado leaves, cornhusks, tree bark, and even pieces of fabric.
Authentic tamales are steamed, but they are often boiled, grilled, fried, roasted, and even barbequed.
Popular Tamales Around the World
The modern tamale is found in every metropolitan city around the world. Most of what you'll find are standard chicken, pork, and beef with red or green chili. Tamale dishes can be found everywhere from Italy to Hong Kong. These places view tamales as very exotic and strange foods, so they are usually adapted to the surrounding culture.
If you want authentic tamales, you need to visit a real Mexican restaurant in Grapevine, Texas. That's if you can't make it to a Latin American country that still makes them as they were centuries ago. Choosing which place to visit for a specific tamale is part of the fun.
Here is what you can expect from each country's signature tamales:
Mexico City: Chicken, pork, or beef, filled with onions, garlic, jalapenos, and chili sauce. This is the classic tamale.
Yucatan: Their hearty tamales contain seeds, eggs, chard, with maize inside banana leaves. The leaves are often preferred over husks.
Oaxaca: The classic tamale is filled with black mole and wrapped in banana leaves. Black mole is a very dense mixture of spices, including garlic, cinnamon, anise, pepper, chilies, sesame seeds, raisins, cloves, and cilantro.
Guatemala: You can find the tamale in various sweet and savory types. Some tamales don't have fillings at all and are more of a corn patty, but still made like a tamale.
Belize: The most popular tamale is the "bollo", as mentioned previously. These are green tamales, usually made with chicken and tomatos.
Honduras: You can find most other Central American types here in Honduras. They aren't famous for any specific types.
El Salvador: Sweet tamales are more popular than standard tamales in El Salvador. Sweet tamales usually have some combination of pineapple, raisins, bananas, sugar, cinnamon, and butter.
Nicaragua: Tamales here come in extra-large offerings. They can be twice the size of your average tamale or bigger. They are dinner on the go, containing lots of vegetables, beans, and meat.
Costa Rica: This region is not known for having spicy tamales, but they are important pieces for holy days and rituals. Tamales here are rich and savory, typically always containing cumin and achiote as signature flavors.
Panama: Panama is a major trade hub, so you can expect to find a variety of ingredients offered in their tamales.
Every country will have some form of tamale, but some countries completely reinvent the wheel. Here are some examples:
Columbia: Instead of the classic burrito-shaped tamale you are familiar with, Columbians roll it up into a ball. The ingredients usually resemble that of a stew than a tamale.
Argentina: Savory tamales are filled with beans, pork, or lamb. Their sweet tamales are called "huma" and are a more simplified version. Some do not deem them tamales, but they taste just like those in Central America.
Venezuela: Here you will find tamales similar to Oaxacan and Yucatan recipes, but with a twist. They call them "hallacas" and they prefer banana leaves with a variety of spices and fillings. You can find olives, chickpeas, raisins, seeds, and bell peppers alongside chicken or pork inside.
Peru: Tamales are called "humayas" in the Andes region. These tamales contain rich ingredients from crops and livestock, such as cream cheese, red peppers, green chilis, and goat.
Chile: The biggest difference between tamales found in Peru and Chile will be the size and spiciness. They are much hotter in Chile.
Bolivia: These tamales seem to be more of a hybrid of Peruvian and Venezuelan specialties. Tamales run big like in Chile and very savory, using goat cheeses and chickpeas, especially.
Brazil: No authentic tamale is found here, outside of specialty restaurants. Their "pamonka" wraps resmeble tamales, but aren't made like one.
Equador: These tamales are heavy and rich in cheeses and butter. They are called "humitas" and generally, no two tamale stands are the same. The masa can be made with butter, lard, or peanut butter.
Supporting Authentic Restaurants
If you're an average American, like me, you might be amazed at all this variety for such a small dish. The tamale has had a long history of being perfected and influenced. The success of this humble dish is witnessed through its many iterations and adaptations.
If you're interested in keeping this tradition alive and sharing its deliciousness with family and friends, then you should support those who make them. By eating at authentic Mexican restaurants in your city, you're keeping their communities strong. Making tamales is a labor of love, and you notice that when you eat at a family-run restaurant.
If you're interested in learning more about traditional Mexican recipes like the tamale, our menu is full of them. We hope that reading stories like these from our blog will help you discover more amazing dishes and the people who make them possible.