A tamale (Spanish: tamal, Nahuatl languages: tamalli) is a
traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa or dough (starchy, and
usually corn-based), which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf.
The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be filled with
meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies or any preparation
according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be
3.1 Ancient Mexico
3.1.2 Pre-Columbian Mayas
3.2 Modern Mexico
4 Central America
4.5 Costa Rica
5 South America
6.2 Dominican Republic
6.3 Trinidad and Tobago
Bonaire and Aruba
7 United States
Philippines and Guam
9 See also
Tamales originated in
Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC.
As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been
Mexico to Central and South America. However, according
to archaeologists Karl Taube, William Saturn and David Stuart the
tamales date from the year 100 AD. They found pictorial references in
the Mural of San Bartolo, in Petén, Guatemala. Although the tamales
may have moved from one country to another, there is no evidence of
where the migration of the tamales went from north to south (
Central and South America).
Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca
before them, used tamales as easily portable food, for hunting trips,
and for traveling large distances, as well as supporting their
armies. Tamales were also considered sacred as it is the food of
the gods. Aztec, Maya, Olmeca, and Tolteca all considered themselves
to be people of corn and so tamales played a large part in their
rituals and festivals.
The diversity of native languages in
Mesoamerica led to a number of
local words for the tamal, many of which remain in use. The Spanish
singular of tamales is tamal. The English word tamale differs from the
Spanish word by having a final vowel.
In the pre-Columbian era, the Aztecs ate tamales with these
ingredients: turkey, flamingo, frog, axolotl, pocket gopher, rabbit,
fish, turkey eggs, honey, fruits, squash and beans, as well as with no
Aztec tamales differed from modern tamales by not having
One of the most significant rituals for the Aztecs was the feast of
Atamalcualiztli (eating of water tamales). This ritual, held every
eight years for a whole week, was done by eating tamales without any
seasoning, spices, or filling which allowed the maize freedom from
being overworked in the usual tamale cooking methods.
In the pre-Columbian era, the Mayas ate tamales and often served them
at feasts and festivals. The
Classic Maya hieroglyph for tamales
has been identified on pots and other objects dating back to the
Classic Era (200–1000 CE), although it is likely they were eaten
much earlier. Several different types of tamales are mentioned in
Dresden Codex: iguana tamales, turkey tamales, deer tamales, and fish
A batch of Mexican tamales in the tamalera
In Mexico, tamales begin with a dough made from nixtamalized corn
(hominy), called masa, or a masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard or
vegetable shortening. Tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks or
plantain leaves before being steamed, depending on the region from
which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are
usually steamed until firm.
Tamale-making is a ritual that has been part of Mexican life since
pre-Hispanic times, when special fillings and forms were designated
for each specific festival or life event. Today, tamales are typically
filled with meats, cheese or vegetables, especially chilies.
Preparation is complex, time-consuming and an excellent example of
Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the
women. Tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, eaten as
both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied by hot atole or
champurrado and arroz con leche (rice pudding) or maize-based
beverages of indigenous origin. Street vendors can be seen serving
them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras) or ollas.
The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green
salsa or mole. Another traditional variation is to add pink-colored
sugar to the corn mix and fill it with raisins or other dried fruit
and make a sweet tamal de dulce. Commonly, a few "deaf", or
fillingless, tamales (tamales sordos), might be served with refried
beans and coffee. Most recently the roasted pepper and Monterey Jack
cheese (chile con queso) tamales have become a favorite
The cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens or
sometimes hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough (and the
coarseness of the filling) is a matter of preference.
Instead of corn husks, banana or plantain leaves are used in tropical
parts of the country, such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and the
Yucatán Peninsula. These tamales are rather square in shape, often
very large—15 inches (40 cm)—and these larger tamales
are commonly known as "pibs" in the Yucatán Peninsula. Another very
large type of tamale is zacahuil, made in the Huasteca region of
Mexico. Depending on the size, zacahuil can feed anywhere between 50
and 200 people; they are made during festivals and holidays, for
quinceañeras, and on Sundays to be sold at the markets.
Another less-common variation is to use chard or avocado leaves, which
can be eaten along with the filling.
Tamales became one of the representatives of Mexican culinary
tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture the
Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization,
according to Fray Juan de Zumárraga.
Tamales are usually eaten during festivities such as Christmas, the
Day of the Dead, Las Posadas, La Candelaria Day (February 2) and
Mexican Independence Day.
Salvadorean tamales are made in banana or plantain leaves, and the
masa (corn meal) is often seasoned with chicken stock.
In Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua,
and Panama, tamales are also wrapped in plantain leaves. The masa is
usually made from maiz (dent corn in the US, not sweet corn, which is
In Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, tamales without
filling are served as the bread or starch portion of a meal:
Tamal de elote (made with yellow corn, sometimes with a sweet or dry
Tamal de chipilín (made with chipilín, a green leaf)
Tamal blanco (simple, made with white corn)
Christmas holidays, tamales made with corn flour are a
special treat for Guatemalans and Hondurans. The preparation time of
this type of tamale is long, due to the amount of time required to
cook down and thicken the flour base.
Guatemalan cuisine is known in particular for its hundreds of
varieties of tamales; some popular ones include tamales de gallina
(chicken), tamales dulces (sweet), and tamales de elote (in Costa
Rica, this name can also refer to a type of corn pastry). In
Guatemala, a variety of tamales is called tamales colorados, which
have chicken or pork filling and a tomato-based sauce (recado), hence
the colorado, which means 'to blush'. Tamales colorados may also
contain olives, red bell pepper, prunes or raisins, capers, and
The tamale is a staple in Belize, where it is also known by the
Spanish name bollo or dukunu, a green corn
Nicaragua has a large form known as nacatamales.
In Panama, where they are considered one of the main national dishes,
tamales are fairly large. The most common fillings are chicken,
raisins, onions, tomato sauce, and sometimes sweet peas.
Pork is also
used. Another variation is tamal en olla, or tamal in pot, which
simply is the tamal mixture, not wrapped in either plantain or banana
leaves, and served directly from the pot onto plates. Tamales are
usually served for all special occasions, including weddings and
birthday parties, and are always found on the
Christmas dinner table.
Costa Rica vary according to region and season. Most
notable are the varieties from the Central Valley and Guanacaste. One
sort of tamales, tamales mudos (mute tamales) are typically served
during certain festivities throughout the year. Sweet tamales and corn
tamales are popular during Holy Week. Tamales in
Costa Rica are
typically eaten with Salsa Inglesa (English sauce), usually Salsa
Lizano, a locally prepared Worcestershire-type sauce.
One version of tamales, called humita, is found in Argentina, Chile,
Bolivia and Peru. It can be either savoury or sweet. Sweet
ones have raisins, vanilla, oil, and sugar; salty ones can be filled
with cheese (queso fresco) or chicken.
Tamales are found in northwestern
Argentina (the provinces of Jujuy,
Salta, Catamarca and Tucumán). Tamales salteños are made with
shredded meat of a boiled lamb or pork head, and corn flour wrapped in
chalas. Tamales jujeños use minced meat, corn and red peppers.
Ecuadorian humitas can be filled with fresh cheese, pork, chicken or
raisins, and they are usually wrapped in corn husk or achira (canna)
Humitas are cooked in the oven or in the pachamanca. They are
not tamales by Peruvian and Argentine standards. In Chile, the food
known as humitas is almost identical to tamales.
Bolivia the tamales tend to be spicy, large and wrapped in
banana leaves. In Lima, common fillings are chicken or pork, usually
accompanied by boiled eggs, olives, peanuts or a piece of chili
pepper. In other cities, tamales are smaller, wrapped in corn husks
and use white instead of yellow corn.
In Brazil, a similar food is called "pamonha", but is more similar to
the humita than the tamale, and has different origins.
In Venezuela, another variant similar to tamale is called hallaca,
which is also a popular dish in Ecuador. They are wrapped in plantain
leaves and filled with a stew that may contain beef, chicken, pork,
almonds, raisins and olives. They are traditionally eaten for
Christmas. Also, the Venezuelan bollos are similar to tamales, wrapped
in corn husks, filled with hot peppers or plain, and eaten as a side
In Colombia, they are wrapped in plantain leaves. The several
varieties include the most widely known tolimense, as well as
boyacense and santandereano. Like other South American varieties, the
most common are very large compared to Mexican tamales — about the
size of a softball — and the dough is softer and wetter, with a
bright yellow color. A tamal tolimense is served for breakfast with
hot chocolate, and may contain large pieces of cooked carrot or other
vegetables, whole corn kernels, rice, chicken on the bone and/or
chunks of pork. Related foods are the envuelto and bollo limpio which
are made of corn, cooked in a corn husk, and resemble a Mexican tamale
more closely but have simpler fillings or no filling at all for they
are often served to accompany various foods, and the bollo de yuca
made of yuca flour, also cooked in a corn husk, eaten with butifarra
and sour milk (known in the country as suero costeño).
A tamal dulce breakfast tamal from Oaxaca, Mexico. It contains
pineapple, raisins and blackberries.
In Cuba, before the 1959 Revolution, street vendors sold Mexican-style
tamales wrapped in corn husks, usually made without any kind of spicy
seasoning. Cuban tamales being identical in form to those made in
Mexico City suggests they were brought over to
Cuba during the period
of intense cultural and musical exchange between
Cuba and Mexico,
between the 1920s and 2000s.
A well-known Cuban song from the 1950s, "Los Tamalitos de Olga", (a
cha-cha-cha sung by Orquesta Aragón) celebrated the delicious tamales
sold by a street vendor in Cienfuegos. A peculiarly Cuban invention is
the dish known as tamal en cazuela, basically consisting of tamale
masa with the meat stuffing stirred into the masa, then cooked in a
pot on the stove to form a kind of hearty cornmeal porridge.
In Dominican Republic, they are called pasteles en hoja, and they are
traditionally (but not exclusively) eaten for Christmas. The dough is
usually made from plantains, although sometimes cassava is used as
well; the meat filling is typically ground beef, but chicken and pork
is also common. They are wrapped in plantain leaves, bound with twine,
and steamed. In Santo Domingo, some eateries sell them, as well as
street vendors. They are especially popular in the nearby city of San
Trinidad and Tobago
In Trinidad and Tobago, it is called a pastelle and is associated
almost entirely with Christmas. Raisins and capers along with other
seasonings are added to the meat filling. The entire thing is wrapped
in a banana leaf, bound with twine and steamed. The sweet version is
Bonaire and Aruba
Bonaire and Aruba, it is called "Ayaka" in Papiamento.
The name is derived from the Venezuelan "Hallaca". It is usually eaten
with Christmas. They are made with corn meal and there are different
kinds of filling, usually consisting of a tomato based sauce with meat
such as chicken, tuna or beef. Fruits, nuts, capers, olives, etc. can
be added depending on family recipes and kind of meat used. The Ayakas
are usually wrapped in banana leaves.
Tamales have been eaten in the
United States since at least 1893, when
they were featured at the World's Columbian Exposition. A
tradition of roving tamale sellers was documented in early
20th-century blues music. They are the subject of the well-known
1937 blues/ragtime song "They're Red Hot" by Robert Johnson.
Delta-style tamales from Clarksdale, Mississippi.
While Mexican-style and other Latin American-style tamales are
featured at ethnic restaurants throughout the United States, there are
also some distinctly indigenous styles.
Cherokee tamales, also known as bean bread or "broadswords", were made
with hominy (in the case of the Cherokee, the masa was made from corn
boiled in water treated with wood ashes instead of lime) and beans,
and wrapped in green corn leaves or large tree leaves and boiled,
similar to the meatless pre-Columbian bean and masa tamales still
prepared in Chiapas, central Mexico, and Guatemala.
In the Mississippi Delta, African Americans developed a spicy tamale
made from cornmeal (rather than masa), which is boiled in corn
husks. In northern Louisiana, tamales have been made for
several centuries. The Spanish established presidio
Los Adaes in 1721
in modern-day Robeline, Louisiana. The descendants of these Spanish
settlers from central
Mexico were the first tamale makers to arrive in
the eastern US. Zwolle, Louisiana, has a
Tamale Fiesta every year in
In Chicago, unique tamales made from machine-extruded cornmeal wrapped
in paper are sold at
Chicago-style hot dog
Chicago-style hot dog stands.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, the name "tamale pie" was
given to meat pies and casseroles made with a cornmeal crust and
typical tamale fillings arranged in layers. Although characterized as
Mexican food, these forms are not popular in Mexican American culture
in which the individually wrapped style is preferred.
The Indio International
Tamale Festival held every December in Indio,
California has earned two Guinness World Records: the largest tamale
festival (120,000 in attendance, Dec. 2–3, 2000) and the world's
largest tamale, over 1 foot (0.3 m) in diameter and 40 feet (12.2 m)
in length, created by Chef John Sedlar. The 2006 Guinness book calls
the festival "the world's largest cooking and culinary festival."
Philippines and Guam
Binaki, a type of sweet tamale from Bukidnon, Philippines
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Philippines and Guam, which were governed by Spain as a
province of Mexico, different forms of "tamales" exist. Some are made
with a dough derived from ground rice and are filled with seasoned
chicken or pork with the addition of peanuts and other seasonings such
as sugar. In some places, such as the Pampanga and Batangas provinces,
the tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, but sweet corn varieties
from the Visayas region are wrapped in corn husks similar to the sweet
corn tamales of the American Southwest and Mexico. Because of the work
involved in the preparation of tamales, they usually only appear
during the special holidays or other big celebrations. Various tamal
recipes have practically disappeared under the pressures of modern
life and the ease of fast food. Several varieties of tamales are also
found in the Philippines. Tamales, tamalis, tamalos, pasteles, are
different varieties found throughout the region. Some are sweet, some
are savory, and some are sweet and savory. Mostly wrapped in banana
leaves and made of rice, either the whole grain or ground and cooked
with coconut milk and other seasonings, they are sometimes filled with
meat and seafood, or are plain and have no filling. There are certain
varieties, such as tamalos, that are made of a sweet corn masa wrapped
in a corn husk or leaf. There are also varieties made without masa,
like tamalis, which are made with small fish fry wrapped in banana
leaves and steamed, similar to the tamales de charal from Mexico,
where the small fish are cooked whole with herbs and seasonings
wrapped inside a corn husk without masa. The number of varieties have
unfortunately dwindled through the years so certain types of tamales
that were once popular in the
Philippines have become lost or are
simply memories. The variety found in Guam, known as tamales guiso, is
made with corn masa and wrapped in corn husks, and as with the
Philippine tamales, are clear evidence of the influence of the galleon
trade that occurred between the ports of Manila and Acapulco.
Latin America portal
List of maize dishes
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