Tamales are a unique Pre-Columbian dish that is believed to have originated in Mesoamerica, the land between North and South America. Mexican tamales are perhaps the best-known version, however, almost all of the Central and South American cultures have adopted the dish into their own style of cooking.
What Are They?
Tamales are a complete meal in a portable form. In most versions, tamales are made from a mixture of corn dough (masa) and filling, wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk, and then steamed. The corn masa becomes firmer when steamed, and the tamale can be unwrapped and eaten on the go.
Archeological evidence points to tamales being consumed by the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. The earliest tamales were simple. They were made with beans and squash and roasted over a fire. When Europeans brought chicken, pork, olives, raisins, and other foods with them to the New World, then tamales became more elaborate.
Tamales have many names and variations like tamals, tamalitos, or pasteles. Venezuelans enjoy hallacas, especially at Christmas. In the Andes, humitas are made with ground fresh corn, rather than the usual masa harina (or masarepa in some places), which are forms of dried cornmeal.
A form of tamales is also consumed in several Caribbean islands, like Cuba, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, and Aruba. Tamales have been widely adopted in the United States, too. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the American-adapted "tamale pie" is what meat pies and casseroles made with a cornmeal crust and layered tamale fillings were called.
The masa, or cornmeal dough, inside a tamale is prepared by mixing dried cornmeal with a broth (usually left from cooking the meat in the filling), lard, and seasonings until it forms as a soft dough. Masa harina is the most common cornmeal flour used to make tamales (and also used to make corn tortillas). Masa harina is made from ground corn that has been treated with lime to remove the skin and hulls, made into a dough, then dried and ground into a fine meal. Masa harina has a distinctive flavor, not unlike hominy, as it is prepared with a similar process. The lard keeps the masa from becoming too dry and pasty.
The fillings range from simple to elaborate. In some countries, the masa is filled with a simple piece of chicken or pork. Most tamales have elaborate slow-cooked seasoned meat fillings (usually chicken or pork), sometimes with vegetables (potatoes, corn, peppers, or carrots), cheeses, dried fruits, and olives.
Wrapping and Steaming Tamales
Tamales are most often wrapped in dried corn husks (soaked in water to make them pliable) or banana leaves. The wrapper is not eaten but imparts a certain flavor to the tamales when they are steamed. Tamales are steamed for about 30 minutes, depending on their size, or until the masa becomes firm and the filling is heated through.
Many families in cultures from North to South America have a cherished tamale filling recipe, prepared by grandmothers and passed down through the generations. Here are a few recipes to get you started: