Blogs » Digital Babble » Food for thought: Tamales


Today's spotlight is on tamales, the delicious portable food.

It may be strange to hear this, but tamales have a special place in my family. It's not that tamales were like family or anything like that, because that would be weird and creepy (after all, we do eat the tamales).

Among some of the memories from my childhood, are the times my mom and grandmother, sometimes some of my aunts, would all get together in my grandmother's kitchen to make a huge batch of tamales. This was done in winter, because having that many people in a kitchen with the oven and stove on at full throttle would not be comfortable in summer. I would peek into the kitchen now and then to see what was going on and watch a flurry of hands making the filling, mixing the masa, and wrapping tamales. Aside from the prospect of delicious food, one of the benefits of these tamaladas was the atmosphere in my grandmother's house. An atmosphere that was filled with the laughter of my mom, grandmother and aunts as they shared old stories of their younger days, an atmosphere that was filled with thrill each time I snuck into the kitchen to steal a fresh tamal, but more importantly, it was an atmosphere filled with love and joy and the comfort of being surrounded by family. You can't beat that.

I never learned how to make tamales myself. Oh, but it wasn't for lack of trying on my family's part. I think I sat in on a lesson once, but CHiPs was on and the escapades of Ponch and Jon were more exciting to me than making tamales.

A little history and background on the tamale:

Mexican tamales (tamal is the Mexican "singular" use of the word) are packets of corn dough with a savory or sweet filling and typically wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. The packets are steamed and eaten traditionally served with Atole (masa drink). Contrary to what is found in most American-Mexican restaurants, most tamales are not served with a sauce, but rather simple and plain.

Tamales date back to pre-Colombian (before Columbus) Mexico and possibly even further. No history of the tamale would be complete without discussing the process of "nixtamalization". Nixtamalization is the processing of field corn with wood ashes (pre-Colombian) or now with "cal, slaked lime". This processing softens the corn for easier grinding and also aids in digestibility and increases the nutrients absorbed by the human body.

Nixtamalization dates back to the southern coast of Guatemala around 1200 - 1500BC where kitchens were found equipped with the necessities of nixtamal making. We have found no specific references to the making of tamales at this time.

It is well documented by Friar Bernardino de Shaagun in the 1550's that the Spaniards were served tamales by the Aztecs during their first visits to Mexico. (America's First Cuisine's - Sophie D. Coe). Tamales were made with beans, meats and chiles and cooked on the open fires as well as on comals.

Wrap it up
The most common wrapper for a tamal is the dried corn husk. There are many other variations including fresh corn husks, fresh corn leaves, banana leaves (fresh or frozen) as well as the membrane from a type of agave plant. In other variations leafy Swiss chard or chaya leaves are used to hold the masa morsels.

Dried corn husks are the most commonly used tamal wrapper. Most of the corn husks found in the U.S. are smaller than the husks sold in Mexico. About seven years ago a new "style" husk was introduced to the U.S. market. This style is called "enconchada" which refers to the "conch shell shape" of the stacked husks. The enconchada husks are of a higher quality and come in at least three sizes varying from 7" - 9". They are even available packed in water for immediate use. Normally the husks must be weighted down in water and soaked for at least 10 minutes to make them pliable and ready for use.

More trivia:

  • The most common (and traditional) filling is pork or chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole.

  • The plural is tamales, and this is the form of the word most often seen in the United States, with the singular frequently given as tamale (incorrect to Spanish-speakers, who prefer tamal). NOTE: But if you say "tamale" don't feel bad, I do too!

  • Tamales are a staple food along the Mississippi Delta. They grew in popularity in the early 1900s when Mexican farmworkers introduced tamales to black workers in the cotton fields in the deep South.

    Listen to the NPR feature on this: "Tamales, Another Treat from the Delta."

    Make sure to also check out The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail site for the complete history about this. The Web site has photos and audio interviews.

  • Some of the information about the history of the tamale is from the Gourmet, which is an excellent place to visit for additional information on this subject.

    Glossary of terms:
    Masa - dough used in making the tamales.

    Tamalada - gathering of family and friends to make tamales.