Growing up in South America, tamales where a very common dish that where served at many special occasions or as a light dinner when having humitas con cafe , a meal made up of coffee (or hot chocolate for the little ones) and a warm, cheesy humita. Because of this, I sometimes forget that even though tamales have risen in popularity, they are still a very exotic dish to many. As so, we saw the need for a thorough introduction to the age old question What are tamales?

What Are Tamales?

Tamales, also known as bollos, hallacas, humitas, chuchitos, corunda, are a very typical central and south American dish. They are typically associated with holidays which explains why their popularity spikes, specially during christmas time. In many countries, however, tamales are enjoyed at any time of the year. This is how we like to enjoy tamales, they are just way to good to be enjoyed only during christmas or special holidays.

But what is a tamale? A tamale is sort of a steamed corn based dumpling. It is usually made of a corn based dough, some sort of filling and wrapped in some sort of natural leaf. Each of these can vary greatly so we should go into each of these components with a little more detail.

Dough (Masa)

The base of a great tamale is the dough or masa. The masa should never be the star of the show, but instead, its role is to be the awesome background band, without which, there would not even be a show. I sometime compare the masa of a tamale with the rice used in sushi. Yes, it might seem simple to make, but there are small subtleties which make a huge difference in the final dish.

The most popular dough for tamales is the savory white corn masa also known as fresh prepared masa. This is a masa that any serious tamalera or tamalero should strive to master because it goes so well with so many different fillings. Other doughs which are not as popular, but totally worth to learn are desert white corn masa, plantain masa, cooked corn masa, etc. There are many variations and each provides a different flavor and experience.

Fillings (Relleno)

If the masa is the canvas, then the filling is the paint. The filling of the tamale is where all the flavor comes from. Here we can use chicken, pork, meat, cheese, peppers, shrimp, fish. The sky is the limit when it comes to fillings. This is where you can get creative and use your favorite flavors. You dont even have to limit yourself to savory fillings; pineapple and chocolate are very popular and make for some awesome tamales.

Wrap (Envuelto)

The wrap is not just a container to hold together the somewhat pasty dough and filling through the steaming process. Tamales are usually wrapped in some type of natural leaf which infuses some flavor into the tamale. Dried corn husk leaves are perhaps the most commonly used as a wrap, however, the banana leaf is also very popular and oh boy, does it infuse flavor into a dough.

Tamale Origins

Tamales are a food tradition which can be traced back to the time of the Aztec and Mayan empires in central America. Tamales are probably among the oldest “to go food” which are still consumed today. They where initially created by women as a way to keep the traveling armies well fed and ready for battle. Eventually, tamales began to be enjoyed at feasts and festivals,  a tradition that still holds true today as tamales are heavily consumed during holiday seasons.