A tamales or more correctly, tamal (Spanish tamal, from Classical Nahuatl tamalli) is a Latin American dish consisting of a starchy dough, often corn-based, which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be further filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.
Tamales are a traditional Latin American dish of Mesoamerican origin, namely from the Aztec empire. They were one of the staples found by the Spanish when they first arrived in Mexico and were soon widespread by Spanish conquistadores throughout their other colonies. Tamales are said to have been as ubiquitous and varied as the sandwich is today.
Tamales originated in Meso-america as early as 5000 to 8000 BCE. Aztec and Maya civilizations as well as the Olmeca and Tolteneca before them used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers. There have also been reports of tamal use in the Inca Empire long before the Spanish visited the new world.
The diversity of native languages in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica led to a number of local words for the tamal, many of which remain in use.
In Mexico, tamales begin with a dough made from nixtamalized corn (hominy), called masa, or a masa mix such as Maseca, and are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before cooking, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are typically steamed until firm.
Few countries have such an extensive variety of tamales as Mexico, where they're considered one of the most beloved traditional foods. Almost every region and state in the country has its own kind of tamal. It is said that there are between 500 and 1000 different types of tamales all around the country. Some experts estimate the annual consumption in hundreds of millions every year.
Tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied by hot Atole or Champurrado, maize-based beverages of indigenous origin. Street vendors can be seen in every corner serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras).
The tamal is often placed inside a wheat bread roll to form a torta de tamal, substantial enough to keep the breakfaster going until Mexico's traditionally late lunch hour.
The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole. Another very 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 (tamal de dulce). There are commonly a few "deaf", or filling-less, tamales (tamal sordo), which might be served with refried beans and coffee.
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 discretion.
Instead of corn husks or plantain leaves, banana 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 Southern Tamaulipas is Zacahuil. Another less-common variation is to use chard 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 that the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization, according to Fray Juan de Zumarraga.
Today, tamales are often eaten during festivities, such as Christmas, the Day of the Dead, Posadas and Mexican Independence Day.
In Central America, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama they are wrapped in plantain leaves, and there are several varieties, including tamal de gallina, tamal pisque, and tamal de elote (in Costa Rica, the name can also be used for a type of corn pastry). In Guatemala the tamal is called "Tamal Colorado," which has a chicken, or pork filling, a prune, capers, an almond, red bell pepper, and topped with tomato sauce (hence the "colorado," which means colored).
In South America, Tamales are found in the north of Argentina (the provinces of Jujuy, Salta and Tucumán). Tamales Salteños are made with shredded meat of a boiled head of a lamb or pork and corn flour wrapped in "chalas". Tamales Jujeños use minced meat and corn and red peppers.
Another version is called humita. It can be salted or sweet. Sweet ones have raisins, vanilla, oil, sugar. Salty ones can be filled with cheese (queso fresco) or chicken. Humitas are cooked in the oven or in the pachamanca. Humitas are not tamales by Argentine standards.
Peruvian and Bolivian 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 corn instead of yellow corn.
In Brazil, there is two kinds of tamales known as pamonha: sweet or salty, both filled with cheese.
In Colombia, they are wrapped in plantain leaves. There are several varieties (including 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 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. A related food is the envuelto or bollo, which is cooked in a corn husk, and resembles a typical Mexican tamal more closely but has simpler fillings or no filling at all.
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 (aka Canna) leaves.
In the Philippines, An indigenized version of the Mexican tamale, the Filipino tamale is a steamed delicacy made with a mixture of ground white and brown (toasted) rice, ground peanuts and coconut milk topped with strips of chicken, chorizo and slices of hard boiled eggs and wrapped in banana leaves. Here is the recipe for the Philippine Tamales.