You may know tamales as a traditional Mexican dish of cornmeal and meat fillings.  Tamales are a culinary staple in Mexico – up to 100 million are served there annually – but did you know that the tradition of tamales spans the globe and almost 9000 years of history?

A Little History

The earliest tamales were likely made by the ancient Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Pre-Columbian writings called hieroglyphs depict wrapped cornmeal bundles with exotic fillings like iguana, turkey, frog, gopher, deer, fish, turkey eggs, honey, berries, squash, and beans!  Yummy?!

Some historians believe the original tamales were made as “packages” of food that warriors could easily carry. In fact, the Spanish word tamal or its English version, tamale, comes from the Aztec word meaning “wrapped food.” This might make tamales the world’s first convenience food!

Tamales and Traditions

Tamales still hold a special place in Latin cultural traditions. Throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America you’ll see tamales at special occasions like weddings, birthday parties, and Christmas meals. Even here in the Southwestern U.S., for some people, it wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales!

In Mexico, tamales are typically served during the pre-Christmas celebration of Las Posadas. On Día de los Reyes (Kings’ Day), the person who finds the baby Jesus figure inside their Rosca de Reyes (King Cake), must host a tamale dinner for their friends.

The process of making tamales is time-consuming and labor-intensive, so it is traditional to make large quantities at once with many helping hands! Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) may host parties called tamaladas with family and friends to prepare fresh tamales in an assembly-line fashion. Multiple generations are often involved in this communal cooking, creating cherished memories as recipes and techniques are passed down.

International Twists

Tamales (or variations) are made throughout Latin America and even in parts of Asia. The most widely-recognized tamales are made with a corn-based dough called masa.  Dough can be made with beans, rice, potatoes, or other vegetables. Savory fillings may include meat, cheese, or beans and a variety of spices. Sweet tamales might contain raisins, vanilla, nuts, cinnamon, brown sugar or fruit fillings.

Tamales can be wrapped in corn husks, but you may also find them unwrapped, or bundled in banana leaves or tree bark. They are usually steamed in large pots called tamaleras, but they can be cooked in a variety of ways including boiling, toasting, frying, roasting, and barbecuing.

If you’re traveling, keep an eye out for tamales in their international forms! In Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia, you’ll find tamales called humitas. In Brazil, they’re called pamonhas and in Venezuela, they’re known as hallacas. In Colombia, you might find tamales de pipían filled with a potato-peanut mixture and pork, and served with a peanut hot sauce. Caribbean tamales are called pasteles en hoja and have a dough made of green banana and other starches. In Central American countries like Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, tamales normally don’t have any stuffing (no meat, cheese, peppers, etc.). They’re served as the bread/starch portion of a meal.

In the Phillippines, tamales called boboto are made with roasted ground rice, coconut milk, and peanut butter, and stuffed with boiled eggs, chicken, and sausage.  Rice dough, fish paste, and unique spices give tamales a local flavor in East Asia. In Guam, tamales are foil-wrapped and two-toned, with different flavors in each half.

All this variety in fillings, wrappings, seasonings, and cooking styles add up to thousands of versions of tamales throughout the world.

A Little Trivia to “Wrap Up” This Post

  • In the Huasteca region of Mexico, people use huge stone ovens to make zacahuil tamales which measure up to 10 feet long and up to 100 pounds! These are shared with the entire community.
  • In the Chiapas province of Mexico, tamales are buried underground with hot coals and can take about 4 days to make, but locals say they’re so delicious that they are worth the wait!
  • Tamales even featured in a historic moment for President Gerald Ford. In what is now known as “The Great Tamales Incident”, President Ford bit into one on a visit to San Antonio, without realizing it had to be unwrapped! ¡Ay, ay, ay!

If you’re a fan, we hope you get a chance to enjoy some tamales this holiday season! Whether savory or sweet, served in a restaurant or lovingly hand-made, these delicious bundles give you a taste of history and tradition!