Tamales with Machas Fritas y Guacamole. Photo: Tavallai (Flickr).

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Tamales: Unwrapping the Culinary Heritage of Mexico

The tamal (plural: tamales) might not be the best-known Mexican dish, but it is among the most unique and authenentic forms of Mexican cuisine. The word tamal itself traces its roots back to the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs: it is derived from the word “tamalli,” which means “wrapped”.

Indeed, the language surrounding tamales reflects the cultural importance of the dish. The process of making tamales is known as tamalear and families gather for what are called tamaladas, communal events where the labor-intensive process becomes a social affair, with laughter, stories, and the shared love for tamales binding generations together.

As a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries, tamales have evolved, adapted, and retained their significance in the culinary traditions of various regions.

At its core, the tamal combines simple yet vibrant ingredients in a way that captivates the taste buds. It consists of masa (the dough, made from corn) encasing a flavorful filling, all wrapped and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The fillings can vary widely, from savory combinations of meats, beans, and vegetables to sweet concoctions featuring fruits and chocolate.


Tamal in Mercado Municipal, Oxkutzcab, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo: Sharon Hahn Darlin (Flickr).

There is a certain regional variety involved. In Oaxaca, tamales might be wrapped in banana leaves and filled with mole; while in Veracruz, seafood-filled tamales showcase the influence of coastal flavors. Each region contributes its unique touch, reflecting local ingredients, traditions, and culinary ingenuity.

Tamales are not just a meal; they’re a symbol of celebration and community. During holidays and special occasions, families come together to prepare and enjoy tamales, creating a sense of unity and shared heritage. This tradition of communal tamale-making is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Mexico.

Below you can find our recipe for Mexican tamales – feel free to play with it and let us know how you get on!


Tamal recipe

Ingredients:

For the Filling:

  • 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup salsa (red or green)

For the Masa:

  • 2 cups masa harina (corn flour for tamales)
  • 1 cup chicken broth (warm)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup lard or vegetable shortening
  • Salt to taste

For the Assembly:

  • Corn husks, soaked in warm water until pliable

Instructions:

1. Prepare the Filling:

  • In a skillet, saut√© the chopped onion and garlic until softened.
  • Add the shredded chicken, cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper. Cook until well combined.
  • Pour in the salsa and cook for an additional 5-7 minutes until the flavors meld. Set aside.

2. Prepare the Masa:

  • In a large mixing bowl, beat the lard or shortening until fluffy.
  • In a separate bowl, combine masa harina, baking powder, and salt.
  • Gradually add the dry mixture to the lard, alternating with warm chicken broth. Mix until the masa has a dough-like consistency.

3. Assemble the Tamales:

  • Take a soaked corn husk and spread about 2 tablespoons of masa onto the center, leaving space around the edges.
  • Spoon a tablespoon of the chicken filling onto the masa.
  • Fold the sides of the husk over the filling, then fold the top and bottom to create a rectangular package. Tie with a thin strip of corn husk to secure.

4. Steam the Tamales:

  • Arrange the tamales in a steamer vertically, open side up.
  • Steam for approximately 1.5 to 2 hours or until the masa is cooked through and easily pulls away from the husk.

5. Serve and Enjoy:

  • Allow the tamales to cool slightly before unwrapping.
  • Serve with additional salsa, guacamole, or sour cream as desired.

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