The Tamales summarize the essence of America and its exquisite cuisine. They are considered a divine legacy prior to the Spanish and one of the most representative dishes of the continent. The older siblings of the tacos take us back to the time when man began to dominate corn and the long expeditions through the jungle where the preservation of food was vital. Its legend lives on and everyone who tastes it is spellbound by its flavors.
This delight is a kind of empanada formed through a mass of corn that hides different delicacies depending on the area where you are or the variety that falls in your lucky hands. They are the symbol of Mexico but many nations consider it part of their culture throughout Central America and the southern cone.
The Legend of the Child God
The tamale stars in a bloody legend told for thousands of years and starring Tzitzimitl. This macabre lady was the grandmother of the God Chicomexóchitl. The grandmother decided to sacrifice and cook the first twenty tamales with his meat.
From the tomb of this Child God the first leaf of corn sprouted, which spread throughout the continent through seven ears of corn. From one of them Siete Flores resurfaced, as this divinity was later known. Once recovered from his trip to the afterlife he took revenge by throwing his murderous grandmother into a cauldron of boiling water.
The Millennial History of Tamal
This cannibal legend shows the importance of the dish for the pre-Columbian civilizations. It is believed that it appeared in the diet of the Mesoamerican peoples around 8000 a.C.
However, no one dares to offer the final date or the exact location of the first tamale. Researchers Karl Taube, William Saturno and David Stuart date it to 100 BC in Guatemala, after finding tamales in a mural of the Peten ruins.
This enigma persists although it seems evident that tamales arise in Mexico. It is known that corn comes from this area, so it is very likely that tamales also.
The recipe was part of the Aztec, Olmec, Mexica, Toltec and Maya cultures. The latter cite it in the Dresden Codex, the oldest book in America that is still preserved. The tamales were part of the funeral rituals, they functioned as offerings to the gods and were of great help in the jungle, for being easily conserved in the expeditions.
The rituals and prayers for the crops were produced through this dish since ancient times. The drawings of tamales in pots and various kitchen utensils indicate that they preceded the tortillas in the Mayan diet of the classical and post-classical periods.
The Tamales and the Spanish Invasion
The creation of the tamales was a resposbility of the women and despite their apparent simplicity, hundreds of years were necessary to acquire techniques that still exist today. All this wisdom was not slowed down by the Spanish invasion.
The conquerors were aware of the potential of what they unduly called tortillas. Tamal in the Nauhatl language means rolled up and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún speaks about this in his chronicles about the New World: They ate tamales in many ways: Some of them are white, not entirely round or square. Other tamales are red.
His descriptions were the first references of tamale in the western world. The European invaders did not forbid this ancestral recipe. On the contrary, they used it to achieve an effective evangelization of the Aztecs.
On February 2, the new year of the Mexica calendar was celebrated. It was a day to honor with tamales the pantheon of Gods Tlaloques. Thousands of people prostrated before the Water Goddess, Chalchiuhtlicuo and before Quetzalcoatl, God of the Wind.
A Religious Icon
The Spaniards applied an old custom of Christianity, that of appropriating other people’s rituals. Taking advantage of the fact that on February 2 the Christian celebration of the Purification of Our Lady was celebrated, they created the Day of Candelaria. They kept alive the tradition of offering and consuming tamales but they changed the Aztec Gods for the Christian.
Now it is one of the most colorful and fascinating festivities in Mexico, where a large number of tamales are consumed. It is also very common to taste them in El Día de los Muertos. The dish was taken to Spain as proof of the existence of a rich civilization on the other side of the ocean by Fray Juan de Zumarrága.
This cultural crossover continues in force through the most unique tamales in Mexico. The so-called Asturian or Spanish tamale is steamed with a filling of ham, pork or bacon seasoned with Manchego cheese and fabas (beans).
The tamales continue being transcendental in the daily life of America. They have evolved from the Aztec altars to the street stalls that dominate the Mexican streets. There, the green is not a color but a juicy and somewhat spicy sauce that accompanies the traditional tamales.
Not only Mexico
Mexico is the place where most types of tamales exist in the world, more than 5000, but not the only one where you can find them. Each country in America has its own, even some like Guatemala or Peru claim their invention.
Its composition, preparation and presentation depend on each zone and may be wrapped in different leaves of banana or corn. The most common is to be steamed. Also, baked or in a hole underground.
In Central American countries it is common to find them wrapped in banana leaves. During Christmas, both in Honduras and in Guatemala, it is cooked with a special corn flour whose cooking lasts for hours.
In Guatemala there are dozens of varieties of tamales based on their ingredients, the most picturesque being called red tamales, which include olives, red pepper, plums, capers and almonds. Belize has baptized them as bollos, using the Castilian word.
In Argentina, they are very present in the northwest area. The tamales salteños are in high demand due to the quality of their meat. Meanwhile, the jujeños include a tasty combination of minced meat, red pepper and corn.
Venezuela has a derivative of tamales called hallaca, which is also a dish savored in Ecuador. Although, Cuba prior to the revolution may have been the country that has best welcomed the tamale Mexican style.
Street vendors of this delight were very common and even Son was dedicated to their delicious textures. Throughout the 20th century it has witnessed an intense cultural exchange between the Caribbean island and Mexico.
This delicacy of the Aztec gods is still present in places as unsuspected as the Philippines or Guam. The Binaki from Philippines is perhaps the most exotic tamale.
The Tamales in the United States
The idyll of the United States with the tamales is centennial. The first vestige of this old admiration for the Aztec dish occured in 1893 on the occasion of the Chicago’s World Fair, where it is presented as a tradition. The street vendors of tamales were the subject of blues songs like They’re red hot, played by the first member of the Club of the 27, the legendary Robert Johnson.
In the United States there is a fascinating variety of tamales. Many of them of Indian inspiration like the Cherokee Tamales. At the plantations in the state of Mississippi, the black slaves engineered their own spicy tamale. A descendant of the introduced by the Spanish prisoners of the Los Alaes prison of Louisiana in 1721.
Chicago also developed a peculiar variety, but it is in California where the devotion for this dish manifests itself more intensely.
The multitudinous Indio Tamale International Festival is held every year there. More than 100,000 people devour gigantic tamales, which in 2000 achieved Guinness by reaching a diameter of 12 meters. In 2006 they broke another record as the largest culinary festival in the world.
The old legends warn: Who eats the tamale that sticks to the pot suffers a curse. Do not worry. It is an assumable evil that is worth suffering in order to taste this thousand-year-old divine legacy. It has seduced gods, kings and commoners and now we are the ones who enjoy them. There will always be a reason to devour delicious tamales.
Recipe for Texan Basic Tamales
5 lbs. lean pork or beef, cooked and shredded
6 to 7 lbs. fresh masa
1 1/2 lbs lard (Our tamales are not made with lard, but this is the traditional ingredient)
1 tbls. salt
1 1/2 pts. red chili sauce
1 bundle oujas (corn shucks)
To make tamales, cook meat by boiling in a large covered pot with enough water to cover completely. Add salt to taste and slow boil till completely done. Cool meat and save broth. When meat has cooled, shred and mix in the chili sauce. Clean oujas (corn shucks or outer husk) in warm water. (make masa by hand or with mixer) Mix the masa, lard , salt and enough broth to make a smooth paste. Beat till a small amount (1 tsp) will float in a cup of cool water.
Spread masa (1/8 to 1/4 inch thick layer, or to preference) on ouja, add a small amount of meat and roll up. Fold up ends of ouja and place(fold down) on a rack in a pan deep enough to steam. Add 1 to 2 inches water, cover with a tight fitting lid and steam about 1 1/2 hours. (a cloth can be used under the lid to make a tighter fit)
Many variations of ingredients can be used in making tamales. You can use a combination of beef and pork, or chicken, or fried beans, or vegetables, or even sweet fillings like canned pumpkin. For meat varieties, one or two olives may be added to the center, or try adding a few raisins.
This recipe will make 4 to 5 dozen tamales
*Recipe from Texas Lone Star Tamale