Tamales: Types, Recipes And History

Find out how to make authentic homemade tamales with easy recipes for this Mexican corn-based dish.
Tamales are usually cooked inside of corn husks or banana leaves.

Tamales are a corn-based dish that forms an integral part of traditional Mexican cuisine. There are many varieties of this typical food -Tamales oaxaqueños are one example, then there are also elote (corn) tamales, and others with fillings like pork or chicken.

Below, we describe what tamales are, types, and how to make Mexican elote tamales and tamales oaxaqueños by following simple homemade recipes.

What are tamales?

The origins of the tamal date back to ancient Mesoamerica and some other names for this dish include hallaca, humita, nacatamal, or guanime. In Mexico, different names are used to refer to this corned based dish and its regional variants such as zacahuil.

Tamales are made with masa harina. The filling usually contains a variety of ingredients including the following:

  • Meat

  • Vegetables

  • Cheese

  • Chilis

  • Fruit

  • Sauces

Besides, you can add all types of condiments or toppings to taste. After, the dough is wrapped up in banana leaves, corn husks, or even aluminum foil and then steamed. This dish can either be sweet or savory depending on the ingredients used and the seasoning or the liquid it's cooked in.

History

The history of tamales in Mexico is a rich one. It all started between 8,000 and 5,000 BC in the Mesoamerican region. The tamal already formed a part of Mexico's gastronomy in prehispanic times, and it was used as a part of religious rituals, ofrendas, and in worship.

One Aztec ritual involving tamales is called Atamalcualiztli. During this festival, everyone eats this corn-based food soaked in water, and to this day it is celebrated every eight years. 

Types

Different types of tamales can be classified based on their size, filling, or the material they are wrapped in. Likewise, regional variations make this type of distinction. Below, we share some of the most common types.

Tamales oaxaqueños

Tamales oaxaqueños come from the Mexican region called Oaxaca, and they are made with a corn dough with butter or oil and salt. Then, this dough is wrapped in a banana leaf and filled with meat and sometimes dressed with black or green mole. This dish is often served with a side of beans or with sour cream on top.

Tamales oaxaqueños got their name from the city, Oaxaca, in Mexico. This is where they're from.

 

Zacahuil

The zacahuil tamal is the biggest variety of this dish out there. In the Huasteca region, it's also known as a 'party tamal.' This food is made in a metal vat, and it can measure up to 3 meters long and weigh up to 50 kilos. The dough is made from corn, which is then filled with meat and wrapped in a banana leaf. Traditionally it's eaten in the plazas of small towns in this region on the weekends, and it's often served with broth.

Tamales de elote (corn)

Tamales de elote are sweet corn tamales made with sugar and filled with ingredients like honey, jam, or dried fruits like raisins or nuts. The leaf that these are wrapped in could be described as Mexican pink -like magenta- and sometimes even yellow, green, or purple.

Tamales tabasqueños

Tamales tabasqueños are also large and form a part of the Mexican Tabasco region's cuisine. These are filled with meat, parsley, tomato, onion, etc. Besides, this variety is always wrapped with a banana leaf while cooking.

How to make tamales oaxaqueños

Below, we'll show you an easy recipe for tamales oaxaqueños in 4 simple steps. The preparation time is 30 minutes, and cooking takes around an hour and a half.

Ingredients

You'll need the following ingredients for this easy Mexican recipe:

  • 1/2 kg masa harina

  • 1/2 cup lard

  • 2 tablespoons baking powder

  • A pinch of salt

  • 3 cups chicken broth

  • 2 chicken breasts cooked and shredded

  • 100 g black mole paste

  • 3 banana leaves

1. Prepare broth

First, dissolve the mole in a cup of chicken broth and let it cook in a pot without stirring until the liquid begins to boil. Then, you should start to notice the mixture thickening.

After, add the chicken and stir well until the flavor is well infused. Take it off the heat and set it aside.

2. Make filling

To make the filling stir the lard and when it takes on a creamy texture, add the masa harina and mix it all together.

Then, add the baking powder, salt, and leftover broth slowly so that the mixture starts to take on the right consistency. Then, make a ball. If it floats when you put it in a glass of water, it's ready.

3. Cook leaves

To prepare the wrapper simply bake the banana leaves on both sides to be able to work with them more easily and then cut them into 10 cm squares.

Put 1 tablespoon of dough in one part of the leaf with a little bit of the chicken mole mixture and wrap the tamal. Then, tie it together with a thin strip of the leaf and repeat until the mix runs out.

4. Boil tamales

Finally, take your homemade tamales oaxaqueños and put them one by one into boiling water or steam them. This process should take about 1 hour and a half or until they are visibly cooked, and then it's time to eat!

Tamales are usually filled with corn, pork, chicken or vegetables.

 

Tamales de elote recipe

As we've seen, tamales de elote (corn) are a sweet variety of this dish. Let's learn to make them with this simple recipe.

Ingredients

To make this dish you'll need:

  • 6 cups of corn kernels or about 5 cobs of fresh corn

  • 1 ½ cups of masa harina for tamales

  • 1 ¼ cups of butter at room temperature

  • ½ sugar

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon salt

1. Prepare corn husks

The first step involves cutting the ends of the cobs of corn or elote. To do this, pull back the husks slowly and place them in a pot with hot water to make them more malleable.

It's important to make sure to avoid breaking the husks since we'll use these to wrap the tamales.

2. Grind corn grains

Stand the corn cob up vertically and cut off the kernels. Then, put them in a food processor and grind them until they have the right consistency. In the same bowl, add the masa harina.

3. Make the masa

Then, put the butter, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Mix all of this until it has a spongy texture. Add the butter to the bowl with the masa harina and the kernels. Then, throw in the baking powder and stir until all of the ingredients are well mixed.

4. Fill corn husks

Take the corn husks out of the pot and drain them. Put 3 tablespoons of dough in each husk and wrap them to make the tamales. When everything is ready, put them in a big pot with a steaming rack and cover them with the leftover leaves and then with the lid.

5. Boil tamales

Boil or steam them for 1 hour and a half or until done. It's important that the dough stick to the husk -if this doesn't happen, wrap it again and then steam the tamal for a few more minutes.

References

Staller, John Edward; Carrasco, Michael (2010). Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Springer. pp. 349–354.

Taube, K. A. (1989). The maize tamale in Classic Maya diet, epigraphy, and art. American Antiquity, 54(1): 31-51.

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