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