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A tamale or tamal is a Latin American dish consisting of a starchy dough, often corn-based, which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be further filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.

Left: Tamales on a plate.

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish from the Aztec empire. They were one of the staples found by the Spanish when they first arrived in Mexico and were soon widespread by Spanish conquistadores throughout their other colonies. Tamales are said to have been as ubiquitous and varied as the sandwich is today. Aztec and Maya civilizations used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers.

In Mexico, tamales begin with a dough made from nixtamalized corn (hominy), called masa, or a masa mix such as Maseca, and are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before cooking, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are typically steamed until firm.

Few countries have such an extensive variety of tamales as Mexico, where they're considered one of the most beloved traditional foods. Almost every region and state in the country has its own kind of tamale. Tamales are eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied by hot Atole or Champurrado, maize-based beverages of Aztec origin. Street vendors can be seen in every corner serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras).

The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole. Another very 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 (tamal de dulce). There are commonly a few "deaf", or filling-less, tamales (tamal sordo), which might be served with refried beans and coffee. Instead of corn husks or plantain leaves, banana leaves are used in tropical parts of the country.

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The cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens if not hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough (and the coarseness of the filling) is a matter of discretion.

Left: An unwrapped Tamale Oaxaqueño, from Oaxaca, Mexico. This particular tamale is filled with mole negro and chicken..

Today, tamales are often eaten during festivities, such as Christmas and Mexican Independence Day.


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