I remember being in the kitchen when I was 5 years old right by mother's side helping her, hands covered in masa, preparing my favorite dish. Tamales are a classic Mexican dish that truly represents my food culture. but not only do I enjoy them, but many around the world have also grown to love this amazing dish. The tamal has generated fans as this versatile dish can be made in a variety of different ways. From pork fillings to chicken or beans, this dish truly encompasses a world of flavor. This is why March 23 is National Tamale Day, it is a day to truly celebrate culture and eat delicious food.
To fully celebrate tamales, understanding its history and the culture surrounding it is crucial. While the first tamal has unknown origin, historians believe to trace down the first instance of cooking as early as 8000 BC by the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. The word tamale derives from the Nahuatl tamalli which translates to “steamed cornmeal dough”. This authentic meal was prepared in a ritual-like manner made for the Aztec warriors. Tamales were efficient as they were portable and were made in large quantities to feed large groups of people, especially warriors. The preparation of the tamale was a ritual that was special as each festival or occasion was a different filling or form. Pre-Hispanic era in which pork was not yet introduced, the tamale was made with different fillings such as honey, fruit, and beans, or any plant that was available.
What does a tamale consist of?
While there are many ways to prepare a tamal the main component is the masa which is ground corn moistened by water. The masa is spread onto any leaf available, most commonly used is the corn husk or banana leaves. The inside filling varies throughout families as everyone has their own recipes. Perhaps the most eaten is the classic red chili filled with pork meat but almost anything can be put into a tamal. Shredded chicken, turkey, beans just to name a few. The making of tamales is not an easy feat, as the preparation is crucial for a delicious taste. The consistency of the masa needs to be just right so it will not stick to the leaf when ready.
A Time of Celebration
Over time, tamales have changed and a great variety of tamales have been prepared all around the world. Many have changed with geography but all are equally good. Nothing beats eating tamales with your family and feeling the warmth and celebration of a good meal. Whether it be enjoying one with your family or individually, you will understand the feeling of culture, one that has been rooted in thousands of years of eating.
My Abuela's Tamles Nejos Recipe
My abuela is from Iguala, Guerrero México. There, a popular form of tamal is called tamales nejos, which translates from the native nahuatl language to “ashes”. As the name suggests, this is a tamal made from masa with ashes. This dish is made with a mole verde on the side. I have great memories eating these with my family in Mexico. This recipe is rarely known as it has been passed down through generations through my great great grandmother. While this is not an exact recipe, it is a general and simplified way of making it without the extra step of mixing the ashes and ground maize. Be aware that Mexican Grandmas do not use measurements, they always do “al tanteo” or basically a guessing game, perhaps she is keeping it a secret.
Prep Time: 2:30 Hours
-hojas de milpa, milpa leaves
-MAZA that is prepared for tamal nejo
-mix the MAZA with salt and water until the consistency is watery
-slide the mixture onto to the hoja de milpa and wrap until there is a thin layer in the middle.
-stack each tamal in the steamer and put oven on high
-cook for about 1:30 Hours
-check if it is ready by grabbing one, if the leaf peels easily it is ready.
-If it is not ready, leave for another 10 minutes .
Bradesca, Kathryne. “The Magic History of the Tamale & How to Make Them at Home.” Article, https://www.munchery.com/blog/making-tamales-at-home/.
Ettenberg, Jodi. “Origins of Food We Love: Tamales.” G Adventures Blog, 22 Mar. 2017, https://www.gadventures.com/blog/origins-food-we-love-tamales/.
Mursel, Ian. Aztec Advances in Health and Technology: Tamales, https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/health/aztec-advances-13-tamales.