What are Tamales?

Mary McMahon

Tamales are a New World food made by wrapping various ingredients in a rich corn dough, and then wrapping corn husks, banana leaves, or corn leaves around the dough parcel to create a packet, which is then steamed. The finished tamales are typically eaten plain, although they may be accompanied with a variety of drinks, depending on the region, and sometimes sides like beans as well.

Corn husks or corn leaves are often used to wrap tamales.
Corn husks or corn leaves are often used to wrap tamales.

Many people associate tamales specifically with Mexican cuisine, where they have been elevated to an art form, with various regional specialties which feature an assortment of ingredients ranging from chocolate to shredded beef. However, tamales are also eaten in other parts of Latin America, and they were once eaten by Native North Americans on a fairly regular basis, as early colonists attested.

Robust salsa is a traditional accompaniment to tamales.
Robust salsa is a traditional accompaniment to tamales.

Nutritionally, tamales have a lot to offer. The corn dough is typically made with masa, a form of nixtamalized corn which has been treated with slaked lime. The corn dough is highly nutritious as a result, and the filling may add to the nutritional value of the tamales with ingredients like protein-rich meats and fresh produce. Tamales are also extremely convenient, as the steamed packets can easily be carried on trips or in a lunchbox; many cuisines have foods similar to the tamale, such as zongzi, Chinese rice dumplings wrapped in plantain leaves.

A tamal need not necessarily be savory, although many people think of them as a savory food. In addition to filling tamales with ingredients like spicy shredded chicken, pork, or beef, cooks can also fill them with chocolate or fruit. It is also possible to find vegetarian tamales with ingredients like black beans, yams, and so forth. Typically tamales are also heavy on the chilies and other spices, making them zesty as well as nutritious.

Many Mexican restaurants offer tamales, and if you live in a region with a large Hispanic population, you may be lucky enough to encounter a tamale stand. Tamale stands often offer a range of traditional tamal flavors, served fresh and hot directly from the steamer and sometimes accompanied with salsa, for people who insist on a sauce. It is also possible to make tamales at home; if you don't want to go through the trouble of using your own masa, you can use nixtamalized products from a company like Maseca, which are designed to be easily used by home cooks.

Black beans may be featured in tamales.
Black beans may be featured in tamales.

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Discussion Comments


How did tamales arrive in the Metropolitan Los Angeles area?


Plural *tamales*, but singular *tamal*. No E at the end. Also, the corn leaves have the masa smoothed onto them, as opposed to being an after-thought wrapping.


If you're not lucky enough to have tamales in your area, you can get yummy homemade tamales shipped to you.

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