What are tamales?
Tamales (pronounced ‘ta-MAA-les’) are steamed dumplings made from corn flour, with a filling of meat, vegetables or (dried) fruit. They are a popular street food snack throughout Mexico, which can be eaten from early in the morning, as breakfast on the go, until late in the evening after going out. Good tamales are light and fluffy in texture.
The essential parts of tamales are the dough made from masa (nixtamalized corn flour – which has been soaked in alkaline solution) and lard, then the wrap made from corn cob or banana leaves. The filling can be anything from carnitas (pulled pork) with chilli sauce, to leafy vegetables or even sweet things like raisins, fresh fruit or dulce de leche.
The word tamales comes from the Nahuath word ‘tamalli’. It is an ancient food – remains of tamales have been found dating back to 8000 B.C. and the dish was on the menu for the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Olmec, the Toltecs and even the Incas. It is thought that the dumplings were originally placed directly in the fire, making the tamales brown and crunchy. Only when the Spanish colonists brought new cooking techniques in the sixteenth century, did steaming the dumplings became popular. The dish is now eaten throughout Central and South America, and in Mexican restaurants all over the United States and Europe.
Did you know?
In Mexico, making tamales is just as important as eating them. Preparation is a labour-intensive job and in Mexican families they are often served on special occasions. The kitchen is converted into a ‘tamales factory’ and the whole family, including children, rolls and folds the packages. It becomes a real family event, which is called tamalada.
How to make tamales?
Beat fresh masa (corn dough) with lard until it is pale, light and fluffy. Spread a spoonful of this mixture on a corncob leaf soaked in water. In the absence of a corn leaf, a combination of greaseproof paper and aluminium foil is used in restaurants. On top of this, add a layer of filling – often meat in a tomato or chilli sauce. Extras, an olive for example, can now be added. Then roll up the leaves so that you get a thick cigar shape. The filling is now completely surrounded by the masa. Then steam the tamales for about 45 minutes to an hour.
How to eat
Peel off the corncob leaf and eat the tamales with a blob of sour cream and some chilli sauce.