What Are Tamales Anyways?

Most people have heard the word “tamale”, and most foodies have some idea of what a tamale is. But most people, while having some understanding of this popular Mexican and Central American food stuff don’t know just how big of a part of Latino food culture tamales really are.

First and most importantly, contrary to the popular american pronunciation, “tamale”, is incorrect when referring to a singular tamal. This is a cultural and linguistic faux-pas that really just makes “gringos” look silly. Next time you are at your favorite fusion San Diego sushi spot or Mexican restaurant, or in any other city, be sure to ask for a “tamal”, that is if you can practice enough restraint to order only one!

But what are tamales? What makes them so important to Mexican food? Why can’t people seem to get enough of them? In this article we are going to take an in depth look at what makes a good tamale, and why they are such a big part of modern Latin American cooking.

Historical Origins of the Tamal

The tamal is recorded as early as 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. Historically in Mayan, and Aztec culture, women were taken along in battle as an army of cooks to prepare food for the warriors and to tend to the wounded. Archaic gender roles yes, but they are as such throughout most of mankind’s history.  Without the culinary ingenuity of these women however, the tamal would not exist as we know it today.

As the warring tribes of the indigenous cultures grew, the demand of readying the nixtamal (we’ll touch more on this later)became an continuous process. Hence, a need arose to have a more portable sustaining foodstuff. This requirement demanded the creativity of the women. Hence the tamale was invented.

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The tamale caught on and eventually grew in variety and diversity unknown in today’s culture. While you may be familiar with pork, beef, and even chili peppers as a  tamale filling, the indigenous inventors of this dish wrapped just about every conceivable food stuff in savory corn dough. From fish, chocolate, and fruit, to fillings that might seem strange to us today; tadpoles, bees, and just about anything else that edible was used.

The sizes, colors and shapes varied almost as much as the fillings. Tamales were steamed, oven-roasted, fire-roasted, toasted, grilled, barbecued, fried and boiled. The wrappings were cornhusks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark, and other edible, non-toxic leaves. The most commonly used were corn husks, banana and avocado leaves. Today, corn husks are the preferred and most readily available wrapping for tamales.

How Are They Made?

Tamales begin with masa. Masa, or masa harina is a corn flour or dough that has been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, a process known as nixtamalization. The chemical changes in masa allow dough formation, and also allow the nutrient niacin to be absorbed by the digestive tract. Masa is used for making tortillas, tamales, empanadas, and many other Latin American dishes.

Over the last few centuries, the varieties of fillings found in tamales is not so diverse as in ancient times. The most common tamal filing  today are red and green chili, chicken, pork, beef,  cheese, and vegetables. They have also become less of a daily staple. With the preparation being so labor and time intensive, tamales are now generally holiday fare, made for special occasions or parties. Because of the time consumption and effort involved, it’s almost unheard of to make “just a few” tamales.

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The process of assembling tamales usually involves several people working in tandem. The masa mixture is flattened out into a dried corn husk, filled with the desired filling, and wrapped & folded in the corn husk before being steamed or grilled until the masa becomes firm and holds together.

Why Are Tamales Important?

The most simple way answer to this question, is that tamales represent thousands of years of tradition and culture. Not only are they a delicious and authentic taste of  history, but they also represent humble beginnings, as well as the togetherness of family, and the ingenuity and adaptability of Latinos, to make the most out of the least.

When you enjoy a fresh tamal, you are enjoying a part of Latino cultural heritage that dates back to a time before Spanish influence did much to suppress and strip the indigenous Latin Americans of their culture. This simple fact shows, that try as they might have, the conquistadores could not stop tradition from being passed down to the modern day.

Final Thoughts

We hope you enjoyed this brief history of tamales, and we hope that it has inspired you to go order a plate, or better yet, learn how to make tamales at home! What is your favorite traditional Mexican or Latin American dish? Leave us a comment with your best recommendations in the section below.