The History of Tamales

Today’s topic is all about the history of tamales. I love tamales. Scratch that, I feel I need to clarify. I love good tamales. Some tamales I’ve had are so bone dry, that I literally can’t swallow them unless I have first doused them in a healthy amount of sauce. 

A good tamale should be able to stand on its own. It should be moist and have intriguing fillings that keep me coming back for more and more bites. This basically rules out every tamale you can buy in the freezer section. All too often they suffer the fate of store bought corn tortillas. By their nature they are going to be more dry. Once the moisture comes out, it is almost impossible to get it back in.

My Personal History With Tamales

Once upon a time I worked in a Mexican restaurant. The food was fantastic, and I particularly enjoyed their enchilada sauce and chile verde. I avoided their tamales because they were unfamiliar. It wasn’t deep fried and it wasn’t a burrito. 

After sampling most of their menu over the following months, I finally discovered the joy that is wrapped up in the humble tamale. I was in love. I’d top them with enchilada sauce and chile verde. I was in heaven!

Since then I have dabbled in making my own tamales over the last few years. These efforts have actually been quite successful and have yielded great results. However, they are a lot of work. In fact, in many communities where tamales are a big thing, they are often a communal meal. Everyone pitches in to make the meal happen for special occasions only.

The Origin of the Tamale

Tamales have been around for a long time. They are believed to have come into existence as early as 8000 to 5000 bc in Mesoamerica. 

The Aztecs and Mayans ate tamales. Their version differed from what we have today. They didn’t add fat and they definitely involved more exotic meats. Some of the fillings inside would feature turkey, flamingo frog, pocket gopher, rabbit, fish, turkey eggs, honey, fruit, squash and beans. They would also eat them with no filling. 

Mayans were big on tortillas. However, before they had griddles and the ability to make tortillas, it is believed they also enjoyed tamales. The Mayan hieroglyph for tamales has been found on objects that date back to 200-1000 CE. It is also believed that the Mayan tamale was eaten much earlier than even that.

Different Regional Varieties

Today tamales have changed a little. However, the main concept is the same. You have a masa dough that has fat and seasoning cut into it. This is filled with a variety of items and then steamed to perfection. There are different regional varieties of tamales throughout Mexico. If you cast a wider net, other countries in Central and South America also have their own spin on this classic dish. I’ll now go through some of the highlights.

Mexican Tamales

These are easily the most well known tamale. When most Americans think of the history of tamales, they will think of the Mexican tamale. With Mexican tamales, lard or shortening is whisked in to masa flour to form a soft dough. Chili powders and sometimes even chili pure will be added to the dough to give it a reddish color. 

The tamale is wrapped in a corn husk. The type of husk depends on the region. There are traditional fillings that are specific to different holidays and occasions when tamales are widely celebrated. Making tamales is incredibly time consuming and it is often a communal family event that is taken on by the women. In tropical areas of Mexico, a banana leaf is used to wrap a tamale instead of a corn husk.

Guatemalan Tamales

Guatemalan tamales are steeped in tradition. They are often eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve to celebrate these holidays. They also will celebrate other special occasions like birthdays, baptisms and other holiday celebrations, with tamales. 

These tamales are filled with raisins and various meats. They often mix a tomato mixture into the dough to give it a reddish color. There are also rice and potato varieties depending on where you are at in Guatemala. In the highlands rice and potatoes are used to form the dough instead of the masa. 

Other Countries

Belize, Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago all have a traditional form of tamale. A Cuban tamale is nearly identical to what they eat in Mexico City. Many believe that tamales found their way to Cuba from Mexico in the early 1900s. 

Tamale Quick Facts

On Wikipedia they made sure to specify that Tamale shouldn’t be confused with Tomalley. Tomalley is the soft green substance that is found in the body cavity of lobsters. It fulfills the function of the liver and the pancreas and is considered a delicacy. 

There is a town in Ghana called Tamale. It is the capital town of the northern region of Ghana. They have a population of roughly 2 million people. 

We have eaten tamales in the US since the turn of the 20th century when people working alongside migrant workers from Mexico learned how to make tamales. They started selling them on the streets of Mississippi, New York and Chicago as “Red Hots”.

The Great Tamale Incident. Former president, Gerald Ford, visited the Alamo in San Antonio’s in 1976. During this visit he was served tamales. He bit into the tamale, husk and all. This became known as the Great Tamale Incident.

Different Cooking Methods, Quick Facts Continued

Tamales are traditionally steamed. However, they can also be boiled, grilled, toasted, fried, oven roasted, fire roasted and barbecued. (I’m not sure how some of those cooking methods would actually work. I think it is walking a dangerous line between what is properly defined as a tamale vs another stuffed masa dish.)

Traditional fillings for tamales can consist of chicken, beef, pork or beans. However, they don’t stop there. The options are virtually endless. You can literally stuff anything into a tamale. Many people do. Iguana tamales are actually a thing. As are boiled egg and shrimp tamales. If you view the masa in a tamale as a tortilla, then you truly can stuff it with anything tasty and delicious.

There are an estimated 500 different regional and cultural variations on the humble tamale.

In Mexico tamales are eaten at all times of the day. It is perfectly acceptable to serve tamales for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

The Rise of the Hot Tamale in the United States

When considering the history of tamales, you really can’t neglect the hot tamale. However, this is a tamale that shouldn’t be confused with the popular cinnamon flavored candy in America. 

Hot tamales are popular in the American South and Southwest. They have some minor variations and are often much smaller than their Mexican cousins. The tamale likely found its way to America with migrant workers from Mexico in the early 1900s. 

Each tamale has a basic foundation. They all contain ground or shredded meat, cumin, paprika, cayenne and garlic. They are wrapped in a dough made from cornmeal or corn flour, and then they are wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. 

Wrap Up

Whether it is a hot tamale, or a more traditional Mexican tamale, you really can’t go wrong. They are all delicious and all tell a story. 

What has made the history of tamales so interesting is that they have become a functional food of convenience. Furthermore, they are insanely labor intensive to make. However, they are a self contained pouch of food. They pack a lot of calories in a small package. This means throughout history they were ideal for hunters, farmers, travelers and laborers. People that needed calories to get them through a long day of work. 

Today they have transitioned from a functional food hunters carried anciently, to a celebration food that families use to draw closer together. What do you think of the history of tamales? Do you have a favorite variety? Let me know in the comments below!

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History of Tamales, From Aztecs to Present Day
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