Is there anything more comforting on a chilly day than a warm, doughy, meaty tamale? As the leaves turn and fall arrives in earnest, we’re taking a look at this flavorful and versatile cuisine.
Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish consisting of corn flour or “masa” dough filled with sweet or savory fillings, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. Many other countries in Latin America also have their type of tamale, but it is widely believed that tamales originated in Mexico.
According to history.com, the first tamales appeared as early as 7,000 B.C. in the Aztec empire, before modern maize was fully domesticated, and played an important role in religious rituals. They remain an integral food staple in religious and cultural celebrations across Latin America.
Like most ancient and traditional foods, making tamales is time and labor-intensive and was usually prepared by groups of women.
Alin Olmos, the owner of Tamales Tita, a home tamale business based out of West Jordan, remembers her grandmother making tamales in her hometown of Puebla, Mexico.
“Making tamales has always been a tradition in my family,” Alin said. “My grandma made everything from scratch, even the cornmeal.”
Alin said her grandma would call all the grandchildren into a line in front of the corn grinder that was attached to the table. Each grandchild would take turns grinding the corn until their arms hurt, then the next would take over.
“Then my uncles would stir the masa,” Alin said. “Masa has to be mixed a lot or else it doesn’t taste good. My grandma would drop a ball of masa into a cup of water and if it floated, it meant my uncles could stop stirring because it was finally done.”
Alin said her aunts would be in charge of wrapping the tamales, so it was truly a family affair.
“The children would grind the corn, my uncles would stir, my aunts would wrap, and my grandma created the flavor.”
After the masa is ready, it is spread onto a soaked corn husk (the husk is never eaten, it is simply used to keep the ingredients together and as a holder/plate to eat the tamale), a filling is placed in the center, and then the whole thing is wrapped together and steamed in a large pot.
Because of the labor and time to make traditional tamales, it was generally a celebration food cooked when there were lots of people gathered.
“We ate them on Three Kings Day, January 6th, and on February 2nd, Candlemas Day,” Alin said.
Three Kings Day, or Día de los Reyes, celebrates the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Candlemas Day, or Día de la Candelaria, occurs exactly 40 days after Christmas, and celebrates the presentation of Christ at the temple and also serves as the mid-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox.
“It was very common for us to have tamales for breakfast after a day of cooking,” Alin said. “But here in the United States, they are mostly considered lunch or dinner.”
The most popular flavors are chicken and pork, but tamale filling options are almost endless.
Alin developed a variety of savory and sweet options, including jalapeno and cheese, mole, pineapple, and sweet cream, but filling types can vary from family to family or from region to region.
Tamales likely first made their way into the present-day United States during the 1800s. According to history.com, as early as the 1870’s tamale carts were a prevalent feature of Los Angeles’ streets.
Tamales can be found in almost any country that has Spanish ties: Guatemala, Cuba, Belize, The Philippines, Guam, as well as the United States. There is even an African American fried hot tamale specialty that developed in Mississippi during the 20th Century.
Even though they can be very difficult and time-consuming to make, tamales developed a reputation for being “peasant food” in the 19th Century. But perhaps it is their humble appearance that lends to their enduring charm. They are easy to transport and eat, due to their husk wrapping, and their filling options can be adapted to almost any flavor profile or personal preference.
Tamales are increasing in popularity in Utah, and while it is very possible to make your tamales at home with a little patience and a steamer, many people leave it up to the professionals. You can find tamales in many places, from restaurants and cafeterias to farmer's markets and food trucks.
You can buy tamales fresh or frozen, and you can also freeze freshly-made tamales. There are different ways to re-heat tamales, but my personal preference is to simply place the frozen tamale in the microwave with the husk for several minutes. Others prefer reheating them in the oven, and if you buy them packaged follow the instructions on the box.
Tamales remain a traditional celebration food and are enjoyed by people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Enjoy!
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