National Tamale Day: What is a Tamale?

Sweet or savory, National Tamale Day on March 23rd celebrates a traditional Mexican dish made from corn dough and filled with a variety of meats, vegetables, or fruit

March 23rd is National Tamale Day; if I had to pick, tamales might be my favorite Mexican food. And what an ancient food it is! Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC.

The history of tamales follows, but first: What exactly is a tamale? It’s a firm dough filling of masa which is nixtamalized corn. The ground masa is mixed with water and other ingredients and can be mixed in or used as toppings. The masa is then wrapped in corn husks (or banana leaves) and steamed. The tamale gets its name from the word tamalli, a Náhuatl (Aztec language) word meaning wrapped.

Nixtamalization is a process that prepares the maize/corn in which the grain is soaked and boiled in an alkaline solution usually limewater (calcium hydroxide) and hulled. The nixtamalized corn becomes softer and more flavorful and when ground, the masa or dough has binding properties that make for great corn tortillas or tamales. Nixtamalization provides several nutritional benefits including increased bioavailability of vitamin B3 niacin which reduces the risk of pellagra disease.

Language lesson: Tamales is plural. One is a tamal in Spanish although Americans call it tamale.

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Tamale fillings

Beans, cheeses, fish and seafood, meat and poultry, vegetables, chiles, herbs, and spices—just about anything that suits the tastes of the cook and her family. Pork tamales with red chile sauce are one of the most popular but beef, black beans, and chicken are also menu favorites.

Different types of sauces are typically served with tamales—enchilada sauce, green and red chile sauces, mole, or whatever the cook wants to pair with the particular filling. Other toppings are those used for much Mexican and Tex/Mex cuisine: cotija/queso fresco, guacamole, marinated onions, pickled jalapeños, pico de gallo and other salsas, sour cream, and queso.

There are also tamales dulces, sweet tamales. These are made with masa tinted pink with vegetable coloring. The most common recipe simply adds sugar and raisins to the masa. But sweet tamales can be made with berries and other fruits, chocolate, and many fillings accented with anise seed, cinnamon, or other sweet spices.

Filling types can vary from family to family and from region to region. Both the filling and the cooking liquid of tamales may be seasoned.

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The history of tamales

Tamales were the first dish made from corn in Mesoamerica. Evidence of tamales dates back to the ancient civilizations of what is now Mexico as early as 8000 BC.

Although the exact beginnings are not known for certain, many historians believe that tamales were first made by the Aztecs. In the millennia preceding cookware, tamales were cooked over hot ashes in a buried fire.

Tamales are thus thought to predate the tortilla, which requires a griddle.

Later, when Spanish conquistadors brought pots and pans, steaming the husk-wrapped tamale packets became a more reliable option for cooking.

The Spanish also introduced more ingredients adding chicken, pork, and lard to the list of possible fillings. In the pre-Columbian era, Aztecs filled their tamales with whatever foods were available: beans, fish, flamingo, frog, fruits, gopher, honey, rabbit, salamander, turkey, turkey eggs, and squash. Sometimes the masa was eaten plain with no added filling.

The Aztec and Maya civilizations as well as the Olmec and Toltec before them valued tamales as easily portable food. They ate them at the home hearth, of course, but also packed them for hunting trips, for traveling, and for their armies.

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Tamales were also considered sacred, the food of the gods. Tamales played a large part in rituals and festivals. For thousands of years, the Mayans worshiped the maize god, Hun Hunahpu. According to the Maya creation story, mankind was created from maize dough. Aztec, Maya, Olmeca, and Tolteca civilizations all considered themselves to be people of the corn.

Maize was the most important food source in Mesoamerica and still is a large part of the Central American diet in the form of tamales and tortillas. And corn still plays an important religious and spiritual role in the lives of the Maya people.

Tamales may have first crossed the border into the U.S. with American soldiers returning from the battlefield. One historian believes that Mexican migrants brought tamales to Mississippi when they came to pick cotton in the early 1900s. Another historian writes that tamales hitched a ride with US soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War in 1848. By the 1870s, there were many street carts with tamales on the streets of Los Angeles.

The easily portable food was also brought to the U.S. by migrant workers beginning around the 1890s who came to the Southwest for agriculture, mining, and other work. The tasty food spread across the southern states. In the latter half of the 20th century, Mexican cuisine moved to the northern part of the U.S. and now there are tamales for everyone, every day!

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Tamales today

With the movement towards more plant-based foods, vegetarian and vegan tamales are on the rise. The menu at CDC Cocina (formerly Casa de Tomales) in Fresno, California features:

The Classics

  • Chicken Tomatillo with green sauce served with roasted corn salsa on the side
  • Creamy Chicken Poblano with potatoes and casero cheese (a queso fresco, a soft, moist, crumbly, fresh cheese) stuffed in jalapeño masa and topped with creamy tomatillo sauce
  • New Mexico Pork with red sauce and grilled pineapple salsa.
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Vegetarian

  • Blueberry and Cream Cheese filled with fresh blueberries, stuffed in blueberry masa, and topped with whipped cream
  • Jalapeño and Cheese topped with tomatillo sauce, stuffed in a red chile masa
  • Savory Sweet Corn topped with green tomatillo sauce, casero† cheese, fresh avocado, and cream
  • Sweet Corn topped with chipotle honey

Vegan

  • Farmers Market, a mix of carrots, kale, cauliflower, and zucchini, topped with tomatillo sauce Portobello, Asparagus, and Broccoli sautéed with guajillo chiles, filled in red chile masa, and served with corn salsa
  • Spinach and Artichoke with potatoes in a creamy vegan sauce, in a red chile masa, served with roasted corn

In the fall, the popular Pumpkin Pie tamale made with pumpkin puree blended with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger makes its appearance. It uses sweet masa with a shaved carrot for added texture and is topped with gluten-free graham crackers.

This should inspire you to create your own tamales whether on National Tamale Day or any other day of the year.

Tamale Festival © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to observe National Tamale Day

  • Discover a delicious new recipe on National Tamale Day
  • Take a cooking class to learn how to make authentic tamales
  • Share your favorite tamale recipe with others.
  • Teach others how to make authentic tamales
  • Visit your favorite street vendor or restaurant for savory and dessert tamales
  • Attend a tamale festival or celebration

Worth Pondering…

Do you want to make a tamale with peanut butter and jelly? Go Ahead! Somebody will eat it.

—Bobby Flay