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tamales on a wooden plate
Wrapped and unwrapped tamales Oaxaqueños (from Oaxaca, Mexico) filled with mole negro and chicken
Course Main course
Place of origin Mesoamerica
Region or state North/Central America
Serving temperature Usually hot
Main ingredients Corn masa, Banana leaves
Variations corn husks
Food energy
(per serving)
100 kcal (419 kJ)
A tamale

A tamale (rendered into English from tamales, the plural of the Spanish: tamal , from Nahuatl: tamalli ;[1]) is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.

Tamales have been traced back to the Ancient Maya people, who prepared them for feasts as early as the Preclassic period (1200–250 BC).[2] Maya people called their corn tortillas and tamales both utah .[3]

Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC.[1] Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca before them, used tamales as portable food, often to support their armies, but also for hunters and travelers. Tamale use in the Inca Empire had been reported long before the Spanish visited the New World.[1]

The diversity of native languages in Mesoamerica led to a number of local words for the tamal, many of which remain in use. The Spanish singular of tamales is tamal. The English word "tamale" is an American back-formation of tamales.[4]



In the pre-Columbian era, the Aztecs ate tamales with these ingredients: turkey, flamingo, frog, axolotl, pocket gopher, rabbit, turkey eggs, honey, fruits, maize flour, squash and beans, as well as with no filling.[5] Aztec tamales differed from modern tamales by not having added fat.[5]

Aztec tamales[6] First component Second component
English Nahuatl IPA English Nahuatl IPA English Nahuatl IPA
tamale tamalli
fruit tamale xocotamalli fruit xocotl tamale tamalli
fish tamale michpiltamalli fish michin tamale tamalli
worm tamale ocuiltamalli worm ocuillin tamale tamalli


In the pre-Columbian era, the Mayas ate tamales.

Maya tamales[3] First component Second component
English Mayan IPA English Mayan IPA English Mayan IPA
tamale uah
maize tamale uia
iguana tamale huh uah iguana huh tamale uah

Modern Mexico

A batch of Mexican tamales in the tamalera

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

Tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied by hot atole or champurrado and arroz con leche (rice pudding) or maize-based beverages of indigenous origin. Street vendors can be seen serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras) or ollas.

The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole. Another 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 de dulce. Commonly, a few "deaf", or fillingless, tamales (tamales sordos), might be served with refried beans and coffee. Most recently the roasted pepper and Monterey Jack cheese (chile con queso) tamales have become a favorite recipe.

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 preference.

Instead of corn husks, banana or plantain leaves are used in tropical parts of the country, such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and the Yucatán Peninsula. These tamales are rather square in shape, often very large— 15 inches (40 cm) or more— and thick; a local name for these in Veracruz is zacahuil, and these larger tamales are commonly known as "pibs" in the Yucatán Peninsula. Another less-common variation is to use chard or avocado leaves, which can be eaten along with the filling.

Tamales became one of the representatives of Mexican culinary tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization, according to Fray Juan de Zumarraga.

Tamales are usually eaten during festivities, such as Christmas, the Day of the Dead, Las Posadas, La Candelaria Day (February 2) and Mexican Independence Day.

Central America

Salvadorean tamales are made in banana or plantain leaves, and the masa (corn meal) is often seasoned with chicken stock.

In Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, tamales are also wrapped in plantain leaves. The masa is usually made from maiz (dent corn in the US, not sweet corn, which is called elote). Guatemalan cuisine is known in particular for its hundreds of varieties of tamales; some popular ones include tamales de gallina (chicken), tamales dulces (sweet), and tamales de elote (in Costa Rica, the name can also refer to a type of corn pastry). In Guatemala, a variety of tamales is called tamales colorados, which have chicken or pork filling and a tomato-based sauce (recado), (hence the colorado, which means 'to blush'). It may also contain olives, red bell pepper, prunes or raisins, capers, and almonds.

The tamale is a staple in Belize, where it is also known by the Spanish name bollo or dukunu, a green corn tamale.[7] Nicaragua has a large form known as nacatamales. In Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, tamales without filling are served as the bread or starch portion of a meal:

  • Tamal de elote (made with yellow corn, sometimes with a sweet or dry taste)
  • Tamal de chipilín (made with chipilín, a green leaf)
  • Tamal blanco (simple, made with white corn)

During the Christmas holidays, tamales made with corn flour are a special treat for Guatemalans and Hondurans. The preparation time of this type of tamale is long, due to the amount of time required to cook down and thicken the flour base.

In Panama, where they are considered one of the main national dishes, tamales are fairly large. The most common fillings are chicken, raisins, onions, tomato sauce, and sometimes sweet peas. Pork is also used. Another variation is Tamal en olla, or tamal in pot, which simply is the tamal mixture, not wrapped in either plaintain or banana leaves, and served directly from the pot onto plates. Tamales are usually served for all special occasions, including weddings and birthday parties, and are always found on the Christmas dinner table.

Tamales in Costa Rica vary according to region and season. Most notable are the varieties from the Central Valley and Guanacaste. One sort of tamales, "tamales mudos" (deaf tamales) are typically served during certain festivities throughout the year. Sweet tamales and corn tamales are popular during Holy Week. Tamales in Costa Rica are typically eaten with Salsa Lizano, a locally prepared Worcester kind of salsa.

South America

Tamales are found in northern Argentina (the provinces of Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca and Tucumán). Tamales salteños are made with shredded meat of a boiled lamb or pork head, and corn flour wrapped in chalas. Tamales jujeños use minced meat, corn and red peppers.

Another version, called a humita, is found in Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. It can be either savoury or sweet. Sweet ones have raisins, vanilla, oil, and sugar. Salty ones can be filled with cheese (queso fresco) or chicken. Humitas are cooked in the oven or in the pachamanca. They are not tamales by Peruvian and Argentine standards. In Chile, the food known as humitas is almost identical to tamales.

In Peru and Bolivia the tamales tend to be spicy, large and wrapped in banana leaves. In Lima, common fillings are chicken or pork, usually accompanied by boiled eggs, olives, peanuts or a piece of chili pepper. In other cities, tamales are smaller, wrapped in corn husks and use white instead of yellow corn.

In Brazil, a similar food is called "pamonha", but is not really a tamale and has different origins.

In Venezuela, tamales are called hallacas. They are wrapped in plantain leaves and filled with a stew that may contain beef, chicken, pork, almonds, raisins and olives. They are traditionally eaten for Christmas. Also, the Venezuelan bollos are similar to tamales, wrapped in corn husks, filled with hot peppers or plain, and eaten as a side dish.

In Colombia, they are wrapped in plantain leaves. The several varieties include the most widely known tolimense, as well as boyacense and santandereano. Like other South American varieties, the most common are very large compared to Mexican tamales — about the size of a softball — and the dough is softer and wetter, with a bright yellow color. A tamal tolimense is served for breakfast with hot chocolate, and may contain large pieces of cooked carrot or other vegetables, whole corn kernels, rice, chicken on the bone and/or chunks of pork. Related foods are the envuelto and bollo limpio which are made of corn, cooked in a corn husk, and resemble a Mexican tamale more closely but have simpler fillings or no filling at all for they are often served to accompany various foods, and the bollo de yuca made of yucca flour, also cooked in a corn husk, eaten with butifarra and sour milk (known in the country as suero costeño).

Ecuador has a variety of tamales and humitas; they can be filled with fresh cheese, pork, chicken or raisins. Ecuadorian tamales are usually wrapped in corn husk or achira (canna) leaves.


A tamal dulce breakfast tamal from Oaxaca, Mexico. It contains pineapple, raisins and blackberries.

In Cuba, before the 1959 Revolution, street vendors sold Mexican-style tamales wrapped in corn husks, usually made without any kind of spicy seasoning. Cuban tamales being identical in form to those made in Mexico City suggests they were brought over to Cuba during the period of intense cultural and musical exchange between Cuba and Mexico, between the 1920s and 1950s.

A well-known Cuban song from the 1950s, "Los Tamalitos de Olga", (a cha-cha-cha sung by Orquesta Aragón) celebrated the delicious tamales sold by a street vendor in Cienfuegos. A peculiarly Cuban invention is the dish known as tamal en cazuela, basically consisting of tamale masa with the meat stuffing stirred into the masa, then cooked in a pot on the stove to form a kind of hearty cornmeal porridge.

Corn-husk wrapped tamales are also popular in southeastern Cuba.

In Barbados, conkies were once associated with the old British colonial celebration of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5. In modern Barbados, they are eaten during Independence Day celebrations on November 30.

In Saint Lucia, it is called paime, and is usually associated with Jounen Kweyol (Creole Day) which is on the last Sunday of October every year.[8]

In Trinidad and Tobago, it is called a pastelle and is associated almost entirely with Christmas. Raisins and capers along with other seasonings are added to the meat filling. The entire thing is wrapped in a banana leaf, bound with twine and steamed. The sweet version is called paymee.[7]

In Jamaica, blue drawers, also known as tie leaf or duckunoo, is a similar dish to tamales de dulce.[9]

In Puerto Rico, it is called pasteles (singular: pastel), but instead of using cornmeal, they are made with green plaintain, ripe plaintain and/or other starchy meals.[10] Semisweet tamales, wrapped in banana leaves and called guanimes, are found in Puerto Rico. Guanimes have no meat stuffing, but may have ripe or unripe plantain, cassava, milk, coconut milk, and cinnamon in the sweet corn masa.

United States

Tamales have been eaten in the United States since at least 1893, when they were featured at the World's Columbian Exposition.[11] A tradition of roving tamale sellers was documented in early 20th-century blues music.[11] They are the subject of the well-known 1937 blues/ragtime song "They're Red Hot" by Robert Johnson.

While Mexican-style and other Latin American-style tamales are featured at ethnic restaurants throughout the United States, there are also some distinctly indigenous styles.

Cherokee tamales, also known as bean bread or "broadswords", were made with hominy (in the case of the Cherokee, the masa was made from corn boiled in water treated with wood ashes instead of lime) and beans, and wrapped in green corn leaves or large tree leaves and boiled, similar to the meatless pre-Columbian bean and masa tamales still prepared in Chiapas, central Mexico, and Guatemala.

In the Mississippi Delta, African Americans developed a spicy tamale made from cornmeal (rather than masa), which is boiled in corn husks.[11][12][13] In northern Louisiana, tamales have been made for several centuries. The Spanish established presidio Los Adaes in 1721 in modern-day Robeline, Louisiana. The descendants of these Spanish settlers from central Mexico were the first tamale makers to arrive in the eastern US. Zwolle, Louisiana, has a Tamale Fiesta every year in October.

In Chicago, unique tamales made from machine-extruded cornmeal wrapped in paper are sold at Chicago-style hot dog stands.[11]

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the name "tamale pie" was given to meat pies and casseroles made with a cornmeal crust and typical tamale fillings arranged in layers. Although characterized as Mexican food, these forms are not popular in Mexican American culture in which the individually wrapped style is preferred.[14]

The Indio International Tamale Festival held every December in Indio, California has earned two Guinness World Records: the largest tamale festival (120,000 in attendance, Dec. 2–3, 2000) and the world's largest tamale, [over 1 foot (0.3 m) in diameter and 40 feet (12.2 m) in length], created by Chef John Sedlar. The 2006 Guinness book calls the festival "the world's largest cooking and culinary festival."


In the Philippines and Guam, which were governed by Spain as a province of Mexico, different forms of "tamales" exist. Some are made with a dough derived from ground rice and are filled with seasoned chicken or pork with the addition of peanuts and other seasonings such as sugar. In some places, such as the Pampanga and Batangas provinces, the tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, but sweet corn varieties from the Visayas region are wrapped in corn husks similar to the sweet corn tamales of the American Southwest and Mexico. Because of the work involved in the preparation of tamales, they usually only appear during the special holidays or other big celebrations. Various tamal recipes have practically disappeared under the pressures of modern life and the ease of fast food. Several varieties of tamales are also found in the Philippines. Tamales, tamalis, tamalos, pasteles, are different varieties found throughout the region. Some are sweet, some are savory, and some are sweet and savory. Mostly wrapped in banana leaves and made of rice, either the whole grain or ground and cooked with coconut milk and other seasonings, they are sometimes filled with meat and seafood, or are plain and have no filling. There are certain varieties, such as tamalos, that are made of a sweet corn masa wrapped in a corn husk or leaf. There are also varieties made without masa, like tamalis, which are made with small fish fry wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, similar to the tamales de charal from Mexico, where the small fish are cooked whole with herbs and seasonings wrapped inside a corn husk without masa. The number of varieties have unfortunately dwindled through the years so certain types of tamales that were once popular in the Philippines have become lost or are simply memories. The variety found in Guam, known as tamales guiso is made with corn masa and wrapped in corn husks, and as with the Philippine tamales, are clear evidence of the influence of the galleon trade that occurred between the ports of Manila and Acapulco.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Hoyer, Daniel and Snortum, Marty Tamales, p. 8. Gibbs Smith, 2008. ISBN 1-4236-0319-2
  2. ^ "Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize - LeCount - 2008 - American Anthropologist - Wiley Online Library". 2008-05-07. Retrieved 2013-12-15. 
  3. ^ a b Mayan dictionary (1997). Wired Humanities Project. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from link
  4. ^ "Define Tamale at". Random House, Inc. Retrieved August 4, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Olver, L. (2000). Food Timeline. Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from link
  6. ^ Nahuatl dictionary. (1997). Wired humanities project. Retrieved September 9, 2012, from link
  7. ^ a b Ken Albala (31 May 2011). Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia: [Four Volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 34.  
  8. ^ Official Site of Barbados. "Recipe for Conkies."
  9. ^ Kathleen E. A. Monteith; Glen Richards (2002). Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage and Culture. University of the West Indies Press. pp. 98–.  
  10. ^ John Marino (22 February 2010). Frommer's Puerto Rico Day by Day. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 176–.  
  11. ^ a b c d Zeldes, Leah A. (Dec 18, 2009). "The unique Chicago tamale, a tuneful mystery". Dining Chicago. Chicago's Restaurant & Entertainment Guide, Inc. Retrieved Dec 18, 2009. 
  12. ^ "Hot Tamale Trail – Tamales in the Mississippi Delta". 2011-08-26. Retrieved 2013-12-15. 
  13. ^ All Things Considered. "Tamales, Another Treat from the Delta". Retrieved 2013-12-15. 
  14. ^ Zanger, Mark H. (May 1, 2007). "Tamale pie". In Andrew F. Smith. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press. p. 581.  

External links

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