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

The Magic History of the Tamale + 31 Years of Masa Dreams

Tamale is a traditional Mexican dish made of masa or dough which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper

“Hot tamales, and they’re red hot, and she got ‘em for sale.” 

Although this song has a double meaning it definitely alludes to the women selling tamales who “got two for a nickel, got four for a dime” from a cart on the busy streets of major cities in the Americas. 

From Blind Blake to Eric Clapton to Kanye West to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, countless musicians have crooned about one of the world’s most versatile foods. Even the child entertainers The Wiggles wrote a song called Hot Tamale though it was later changed to Hot Potato

No matter your musical taste, the world of tamales has something to please your palate. From pork to potato-filled, these tightly wrapped taste sensations will make you smile.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of the tamale

The history of tamales is long and storied, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Tamales were first mentioned in Aztec texts and they were also mentioned in the journals of Spanish conquistadors. Tamales were a favorite food of the Aztecs and Mayans and they were often eaten as a portable meal while traveling. The Aztecs would wrap tamales in corn husks and the Mayans would wrap them in banana leaves.

Tamales came to the United States with the Mexican immigrants who brought their traditional recipes. Tamales became especially popular in the American Southwest where the climate is similar to that of Mexico. Today, tamales are enjoyed by people all over the world and they come in a variety of flavors and styles.

Women made tamales and the painstaking process was part of their daily routines and important religious traditions. Tamales were originally cooked over hot ashes in a buried fire. Later, when Spanish conquistadors brought pots and pans women started steaming the corn-wrapped packages. The Spanish also introduced more flavors adding meat and lard to the vegetable delights.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legends surrounding the tamale

The history of tamales is surrounded by mystery perhaps because the delicacies are hidden in inedible corn husks or because they are regularly mentioned in religious stories passed down through generations. 

One important tamale legend dates back thousands of years and features Tzitzimitl, the grandmother of the ancient god Chicomexóchitl. She was said to sacrifice her grandson and use his meat to make the first twenty tamales.

The tamale is also described in the Popul Vul, the Mayan’s major mythological document which says that humans acquired their lasting form from corn.  The legends continued over the years. 

Tamales were often offered to the gods during religious ceremonies. Spanish missionaries incorporated these native traditions to spread Catholicism in Mexico. Where tamales had been used in pagan rituals of the past they soon became associated with Christan holidays as explorers spread their ideas and religion. 

Even today, some mystery remains around tamales. Some believe there is a curse on whoever eats the tamale that sticks to the pot. But if you cook them correctly there should be no tamales stuck at all!

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Symbolism of tamales

What is the significance of the tamale as a food symbol? Corn tamales were commonly sent with hunters, travelers, and soldiers on their journeys to provide them with sustenance and luck and they were commonly chosen as the feast for spiritual and community gatherings. It is thought that the Aztecs used the word tamalli to wrap everything around their bodies.

It is now a world-famous dish with a long and fascinating history that has spread beyond continents and cultures. They are still popular in many Latin American countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia where they were created.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a Tamale?

So what exactly is a tamale? Tamales are made of masa which is ground corn moistened with water. The masa is wrapped in whatever leaves are available such as corn husks, banana leaves, or even tree bark.

The wrapping gives the tamale its name as it comes from the word tamalli, the Náhuatl word meaning wrapped. Inside the tender masa is a filling of tender meats, aromatic spices, and carefully chopped vegetables. There are as many tamale-filling flavors as there are families who make them as each cook adds her own twist.

Pork tamales with red chilis are one of the most well-known varieties but fillings like shredded chicken, black beans, and beef are also popular. Imagination is the key; there are even turkey tamales!

The tamale has come a long way since the early Aztecs ate them at war. With the addition of flavorful fats and meats like lard and pork butt the flavor of the tamale has skyrocketed. 

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tamales in America

So how did tamales cross the border into the United States? 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 U.S. soldiers returning from the US-Mexican War in 1848.

Everyone agrees that by the 1870s in Los Angeles, tamales were plentiful on street carts. In fact, they were considered such a nuisance that officials tried to ban them. The story was the same in San Antonio, Texas.

In Mississippi, tamales became a hallmark of African American food even inspiring jazz songs. These days, the tamale bends so many ingredients and ways of life. History professor Monica Ketchum says, “The modern tamale is a blending of cultures.”

It also brings together families and is a wonderful reminder of the past. Because of the labor-intensive method of making tamales, they are no longer a daily or weekly treat but are more often made for special occasions like the  Day of the Dead, Christmas, and New Year’s. 

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to make tamales at home 

No matter what kind of tamales you make know that it can be a long process. For instance, the Oaxacan style includes 120 specific steps! The ratio of masa to filling is of utmost importance. To make excellent tamales you want to be able to taste the succulent fillings not just the dough. A 50/50 ratio is best.

Tamale dough

Depending on where you live, you can often find masa in stores or you can always make your own. When mixed into dough, masa has a custardy texture. The corn dough is mixed with spices and lard and your goal is to create the consistency of peanut butter with nothing sticking to the sides of the bowl. When the dough is no longer sticky, you’re ready to go!

While you knead the dough, have the corn husks soaking in water. Trimming the husks is important for properly sized tamales. About five inches is a good length. Next, place two tablespoons of masa on each corn husk and spread it out with a spatula or putty knife.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Popular tamale fillings

When it comes to the pork filling, experts recommend using your filling when it’s cold placing it in a line down the middle of the husk so it doesn’t run to the edges during cooking. Whether you fill your tamale with tender beef, green chiles, potatoes, and garlic, or shredded chicken, corn kernels, and red sauce, the combinations are as endless as your imagination.

For pork with red chile sauce, use pork butt or shoulder as well as spices like oregano and cumin, topped with a spicy red chile sauce. Another popular filling is black beans and cheese.

31 Years of Masa Dreams

The Indio International Tamale Festival taking place every December (31st annual; December 2-3, 2023) is the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to the steamed savory treat. Visitors will see over 300 tamale vendors as well as live entertainment, interactive art spaces, beer gardens, craft stalls, and, of course, the largest-ever tamale. There is also a competition for the best-tasting tamale.

Other bites available at the event include tacos, nachos, carne asada fries, funnel cake, ice cream, and kettle corn. The festival is also known for its carnival rides and—since last year—the World’s Biggest Bounce House for kids and adults alike.

Food Network ranked the Indio International Tamale Festival in the top 10 All-American Food Festivals in the nation. The festival is a special occasion that kicks off the holiday season bringing the entire community together.

More than 300 vendors will be featured plus a tamale eating contest, five stages of live entertainment, and wine and beer gardens. Attendees will be able to sample a wide variety of tamales from traditional recipes to vegan and vegetarian options.

Admission is free.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Bobby Flay, celebrity chef, restaurateur