A tamale is made with masa, or cornmeal dough, that is placed in a softened corn husk or plantain leaf, and filled with various toppings. The cook spreads the masa on the husk, followed by a filling of beef, pork, or chilies. These ingredients involve a significant amount of preparation. The masa is made with cornmeal and lard and seasoned with cumin, onion, and chilies. The meat has to be simmered until extremely tender, which usually takes several hours. It is also seasoned with onion, chilies, cumin and other spices. Even a chili filling is time-consuming – they must be roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped before being placed in the corn husk with the masa(HICA). After this, the cook wraps up the corn husk and steams the tamale for several minutes. They can be served immediately afterward or stored for a later time, as the husk traps the heat of the tamale.
While the tamale in its traditional form has held its own in the Mexican culture, many, many varieties have developed across the country – to the extent that each region has its own distinctive version of the tamale. Fillings vary from sweet (cinnamon, raisins, fruit) to savory (mushrooms, fish, egg, squash). Some regions use edible fruit leaves, like those of the avocado or banana tree, or even soft tree bark (Tamara’s Tamales). Specific variations include tamale tomilenses of Colombia, which contain chicken, pork belly, pork rib, boiled eggs, carrots, pea, potatoes, rice, condiments, and masa all wrapped into banana leaves (Tamales Tomilenses). Tamales de elote of Mexico are considered dessert tamales in some regions because sweet corn is utilized for the masa dough. Nacatamales are a Honduran and Nicaraguan variation on tamales. They are steamed corncakes filled with meat and vegetables and wrapped in banana leaves, and they are classified as a ‘special occasion’ food eaten only on Sunday mornings or during holidays, especially for Christmas in Mexico.
The history of tamales is somewhat unclear – some archaeologists believe that they can be traced back to as early as 7000 B.C. in pre-Colombian history. Mayan iconography shows plates with round balls that resemble tamales, which likely signifies their inclusion in Maya culture, though the word tamale comes from the Nahuatl tamali (Pilcher, 1). Fossil corn husks have been discovered near the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan, which would indicate the existence of tamales between 250 B.C. and 750 B.C. Aztecs, or the Mexica people, found that they needed a more portable version of their traditional meals, so that their army could be sustained during training or long journeys. They quickly found that tamales could be made from the staples of their diet, were very filling, and could be transported easily (and kept warm) with a ‘wrapper’ of corn husk. Initially, Aztec women buried tamales in hot ashes to cook them; they quickly moved on to underground pits or uncovered pots for steaming (Warner).
Tamales are traditionally viewed solely as a Mexican dish; however their portability, ingredients, and association with tradition have linked them to many other regions. The process of making tamales and their distinctive ingredients varies all across Central America, and has even been adopted some extent in South America. Tamales are also very popular further north, in the Mississippi Delta region.
The history of the tamale in the Delta also somewhat unclear, so several theories about its origins have developed. Some historians believe that migrant laborers brought tamales over from Mexico, and recognizable ingredients and portability quickly made them popular among African-American field workers. Others think that American soldiers brought them back from the Mexican-American war; others still insist that tamales have “always been in the Delta.” Delta tamales do differ just slightly from Mexican tamale – they are smaller and simmered rather than steamed. Tamales have persisted in the Delta for many of the same reasons that they have lasted in Mexican culture – they are a warm and hearty food that could be transported to picking fields during the harvest and then sold to the public during the offseason (Evans).
Lexicographer: Hannah Dean, Tulane University
Evans, Amy. "An Introduction: Hot Tamales & The Mississippi Delta." Southern Foodways Alliance. N.p., 31 Mar. 2006. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. ¡Que vivan los tamales! : Food and the Making of the Mexican Identity. Albequerque: Diálogos. 1998. Print.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity. [Peer Reviewed Journal]
Tamara’s Tamales. A History of Tamales. N.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.
"Tamales Tolimenses (Tolima Region Tamales)." My Colombian Recipes RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.
The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA). "Tamales." The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2013.
Warner, Katie. "The History Behind Tamales." The Austin Times: A Multicultural News Source. The Austin Times, 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 08 Oct. 2013.
Wyatt, Andrew R. "Mexico and Central America, Precolumbian." . Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. 497-502. . Web. 1 Oct. 2013.