In Mexican cooking, Tamales are usually small appetizers (“antojitos”); in TexMex cooking, they are larger and part of a main course.
Tamales are steamed dumplings wrapped in corn dough. Though we mostly know them by their Mexican name — Tamales — they are in fact made all throughout Latin America under different names (see Language Notes at end.) Tamales can be either savoury or sweet.
The dumpling is folded up in a wrapping of some sort, and then steamed to cook. The wrapping is peeled away and discarded when it’s time to eat them.
Because Tamales are so labour intensive, they have become today something that you either buy from restaurants, stores or street vendors, or make only for holidays. There are different shapes and fillings associated with different holidays.
Making Tamales isn’t complicated, but it is quite fiddly. You may want to make the fillings the day before (or even some time in advance, and freeze it), then assemble the Tamales the next day.
There are three elements to Tamales: the filling, the dough, the wrapper.
Pork is the most traditional filling for Tamales in Central Mexico — or to be precise, it is now since the Spanish introduced pigs after the conquest. Other meats used are chicken and beef (the Aztecs also used venison and frogs), but the fillings don’t have to be meat: they can be vegetables, beans, seafood, cheese, pumpkin seeds, eggs. Nor do the fillings even have to be savoury fillings; they can be sweet fillings of fruit and nuts.
Tamale recipe fillings may seem to call for quite a lot of seasoning, but remember that there is going to be a small amount of filling surrounded by a heavy dough, so the filling needs a good strong taste that can come through both the steaming process, and the dough.
The dough is made from fat, salt, masa harina and a liquid. (see entry on Masa Harina.)
Shortening can be used instead of lard.
The liquid will often be water, though a broth or sometimes milk will be called for.
Salt enhances the flavour of the corn.
Sometimes a recipe will call for baking powder, to make a lighter dough.
Using electric beaters on the dough will fold lots of air into it to make it fluffy, which is desirable (remember, this is not a wheat-based dough, so you don’t need to worry about overhandling it.) Whip the fat and the salt together first for a few minutes, then add the masa harina and the liquid. To test the dough, take a glass of water and drop a small ball of dough into it. If the dough floats, the dough is ready. If the dough ball sinks, whip more liquid into the dough.
Corn husks are the most common wrapping material. Other materials used are banana leaves, fresh corn leaves, even Swiss Chard.
The first time you make Tamales, consider using tin foil as a wrapping. Though it doesn’t give the flavour of the leaves, and just the thought of doing this will give foodies a heart-attack, it will make it easier and let you focus on the filling, dough and the cooking. If you are using foil, you want pieces about 12 inches (30 cm) long.
In addition to wrapping, you have to securely tie each of your bundles of joy (which you don’t have to if you use tin foil; it will stay together) so that they don’t come undone during cooking. The most “authentic” way is cutting a few soaked corn husks into strips, and using the strips as ties. You can also use plain white kitchen string or natural coloured twine, which can be a bit less fiddly than making and struggling with corn strips. Sometimes if you are very lucky you can even get away without tying them off, if you place the Tamale bundles in the steamer folded side down.
Sort through your corn husks; any broken ones you could cut into strips and use to tie the bundles with. Place the corn husks in a very large bowl, and put a weight on them so they won’t float up, then pour boiling water over them. Let soak for at least ten minutes, though soaking for several hours and even overnight is fine.
When you are ready to start the “production line”, it is best to drain and pat dry all the husks at once, and place them in a plastic bag to stop them from drying out. Then just remove from the bag as you need them.
Spread a layer of the dough over a corn husk. Use about 1 tablespoon of dough, and with the back of the spoon spread and flatten it out over the wrapping to about ¼ inch (½ cm.) Leave ½ inch (1 cm) clear on either side, and an inch and a half (4 cm) at the top and bottom. Put a strip of filling down the middle, using about 1 tablespoon of filling. Fold the sides in so that they overlap a bit in the middle, then fold the two ends over.
There are different folds that you can do — some that look like a Christmas cracker, some that will look like California rolls.
If you have different fillings, consider using different folds to distinguish them — or even easier, different tying-off material.
Steam the Tamales for the length called for in whatever recipe you are making.
For the steamer, you can use the Asian-type bamboo baskets, a rice steamer, vegetable steamer adapters that come with most pots and pans sets; you can even improvise by putting something heat proof in the bottom of a large pot to raise the Tamales out of the boiling water.
As with anything you steam for any length of time, be prepared to top up the boiling water with hot water from a kettle.
You can make the fillings ahead and freeze them in bags, ready to thaw and go when you need them.
You can even make the entire Tamales ahead. They taste great when reheated in a microwave after a few days of refrigeration; they also freeze extremely well. In fact, it is probably the better part of valour to not make Tamales on the day you plan to serve them.
Tamale making dates back to at least 5000 BC, at least as far as any archaeological records can tell us. They were portable food, perfect for hunters or for armies on the march.
The fillings were far more varied than today; not that any of us would crave fillings made of bees, tadpoles, frogs, ox, etc.
The Spaniards were served Tamales on their first visits to Mexico.
Literature & Lore
In the Southern US, in states such as Louisiana and Texas, street vendors began selling Tamales from carts at the start of the 1900s. They would be sold hot from streetcarts, kept hot by steam. The fat in them would stop them from drying out. When the sellers yelled “Hot Tamales” from their carts, they were referring to temperature, not spice.
“Tamales” is the plural; “Tamal” is the singular. The word comes from the old náhuatl language, in which it was “tamalli”.
They are called Tamales in Cuba, Mexico and Central America. Elsewhere, they are called: Nacatamal (Nicaragua), Paches or Chuchitos (Guatemala), Humita (Bolivia and Ecuador), Bollo (Columbia ), Hallaca (Venezuela ).