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 seasoned.
As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been brought from 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 (Mexico to Central and South America).
The 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 filling. Aztec tamales differed from modern tamales by not having added fat.
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 tamales.
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 recipe.
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.
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 called elote).
In Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, tamales without filling are served as the bread or starch portion of a meal:
During the 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 almonds.
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.
Tamales in 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, Ecuador, 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) leaves. 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.
In Peru and 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 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 dish.
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).
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 Cristobal.
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 called paymee.
On Curaçao, 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.
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 October.
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."
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In the 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.