Back in January, the Tres Reyes Magos, the Three Wise Men, visited the houses of every children to leave out their presents. With them, came the delicious and traditional sharing of the Rosca de Reyes, a ring-shaped bread made from sweet dough in which we hide a small child figurine (sometimes more than one) representing Baby Jesus. According to tradition, the person who cuts their piece of rosca and finds this figure will have to make and invite people over for tamales on Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas Day. Well, Candlemas day is here and we hope you are all paying your debts respectfully and/or reminding those who should about this!
Meanwhile, since our minds are thinking about the delicious food that that is owed today, on Candlemas Day, or Día de la Candelaria, we would like to highlight some fun, curious, and interesting facts about this delicious dish.
Before we start with our list, let us introduce this article's protagonist: The tamal, or tamale! This is an icon of Mexican food. It has been a fundamental part of our diet since Pre-Columbian times and it is, thus, present as a staple of Mexican culture. Though this is a shared heritage with all Mesoamerican cultures, today we will be focusing on the Mexican tamal, as it is what we are familiar with and exploring all different facts about tamales around Latin-America and the world would be a never-ending task!
So, what is a tamal? A tamal is a delicious dish made of corn masa (a dough made from nixtamalized corn) stuffed with various ingredients (mainly pre-cooked chicken, beef, or pork), covered in vegetable leaves (traditionally corn husk, but with many other variations like banana leaf) and lastly steamed in a big pot.
Seems simple, right? Well, it is definitely not easy to make tamales, at least not without experience. This delicacy requires attention to every detail, including knowing how thick the dough should be, the ratio of dough and stuffing, how to select the husks, and how much time to allow them to steam. In Mexico, those who make the most delicious tamales are usually women and they will not be able to give you quantities or exact measurements on how to make them, they just know by heart.
Ready to learn some facts about tamales? Here they are:
- The word Tamal comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, which means “wrapped”.
- In proper Spanish tamal is the singular form and tamales is the plural, (adding the standard -es to make a word plural). However, There is an ongoing debate on the "correct" use of this tamal vs. tamale. This debate references that in Nahuatl, both the singular and plural form of tamal is tamalli, so using the word tamale honors the origin of the word. Note: as native Spanish speakers we use the singular form tamal, but we do believe that there is no "correct" way of using the world (or any other for a matter of fact as we agree with those who argue that language is flexible and fluid).
- In Mexico, the tamale dates to pre-Hispanic times, tracing its origin to approximately 500 B.C. to the Mesoamerican cultures in Guatemala and Mexico (the Mayas, Toltec, Olmec, and some Aztecs afterwards).
- It is said that tamales were a food prepared for great celebrations as well as in any social event.
- Tamales were also made as an offering to the dead on Day of the Dead celebrations, a tradition that is still present today.
- Tamales were considered sacred food, as they were seen as the food of the gods. Aztec, Maya, Olmec, and Toltec all considered themselves to be people of corn, so tamales played a large part in their rituals and festivals.
- In pre-Hispanic Mexico it was believed that the person who ate a tamal that was stuck at the bottom of the pot would be persecuted by a curse; if it was a man, he would no longer shoot arrows in war; if it was a woman, she would have difficulties during childbirth.
- The pre-colonial Mexico tamal was firmer, made with vegetables such as pumpkin, chili, and corn, traditional ingredients of Mexico.
- After the arrival of the Spanish, the tamal was adapted and complemented with ingredients from Europe, resulting in the exquisite flavor that we know today. For example, the Manteca, or lard, used to make them as well as the pork, beef, chicken, or cheese that are used as fillings came to replace vegetables such as pumpkin, quelites, and corn as well as animals like turkey that were used in pre-Hispanic times.
- Spanish missionary, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, in his book Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España II, recorded the tamal as Cuatecuicuilli Tamalli and described it as: «white, not quite round, nor square; they have at the top designs of snail shells or decorated with seeds and beans with which it is mixed».
- There are approximately 500 varieties of tamales in Mexico, which result in some 3,000 or 4,000 preparations, according to family customs, inventions and adaptations.
- There are thousands of ingredients used for tamales: huauzontle seeds, beans, beans with cheese, they can be stuffed with pork, beef, or chicken in sophisticated sauces, there are also chopped carrots and potatoes, peas, peppers, as well as boiled eggs; Similarly, there are sweet flavors such as pineapple with eggnog, piñon with biznaga, and sweetened peanut, among other flavors.
- Although most tamales are usually wrapped in corn or banana leaves, there are techniques that use maguey leaves.
- There is a popular variation of the tamal in Mexico: Oaxacan tamales—which you can find in all parts of the country, but are best, naturally, in their home state—consist of masa (a mash made of ground corn soaked in water and lime), chicken, and mole negro wrapped in a banana leaf.
- Tamales are eco-friendly! the wrapping can either be discarded prior to eating or used as a plate, either way, it is biodegradable.
- Most tamales are eaten for breakfast.
- The atole is the drink that best accompanies this dish, it is also consumed together with milk or coffee.
- The Zacahuil is a type of tamal that measures approximately one meter long and is consumed in celebrations.
- In 2018, the Chipilín tamal achieved the Guinness Record for the longest tamal in the world, measuring 50.05 meters long and 16 centimeters wide, a thousand sheets of banana leaves, 350 kg of dough, and 100 kg of pork meat were used.
- Nowadays you can find instant tamales, packaged, and marketed in almost all supermarkets in Mexico, and in some places of the US.
- The “guajolotas” or "torta de tamal"(tamales inside a bolillo) are also a common way of consuming them.
- Tamales are not only eaten in Mexico. Tamales are a shared heritage in Mesoamerica, several countries such as Guatemala, Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and even the Philippines have their variety of tamales, made up of corn dough and covered with banana or corn leaves.
- In the Philippines and Guam, which were governed by Spain as a province of Mexico, different forms of tamal-like foods exist. Tamales, tamalis, tamalos, and pastelesare are different varieties found throughout the region. Some are sweet, some are savory, and some are sweet and savory. Mostly wrapped in banana leaves and made of rice.
Lastly, before we end our list, there are some of the beliefs and superstitions that are held in Mexico regarding the preparation of tamales. As a traditional and complex dish to be made, it must be accompanied by certain rituals, like almost everything in our magical Mexico. This includes:
- For the tamales to be “good”, it is necessary to cross the dough before starting to make the tamales.
- It is important to sing while making the tamales so that they don’t go sour.
- Those who are upset, hungry, or crying in the house while tamales are being prepared should leave the room where they’re being prepared because otherwise the tamales will be “pintos” which means raw in some parts while firm in others.
- When the tamales are “haciéndose del rogar”, that is, taking their time to cook, the steamer should be kicked or shaken.
- A pregnant woman should not make tamales because they remain "pintos", this means cooked parts and raw parts, and if she participates in the preparation, she must tie a red ribbon around her belly.
- Just like rice, the steamer should never be opened before they are ready, because they get waxy and risk them to turn out “pintos”.
Now that you know, take your precautions while making them so that you can taste some delicious tamales! (and we have a recipe here).
There is always a reason to have a tamal: at baptisms, quinceañeras, La Candelaria, Day of the Dead, office celebrations, or a delicious Wednesday breakfast. Tamales are part of our daily lives as Mexicans and so is the making of tamales, which is a tradition in and of itself. Making tamales is a complex and time-consuming task, which is why families in Mexico get together to make them, making this also the perfect example of Mexican communal cooking that helps us maintain our cultural roots.
So what do you think about this list? Some of these you might already know, some of them were completely new to us, but we sincerely hope you like them all and share with us what you know that we failed to include! Also, let us know of your experiences with tamales, we love to read all of your insights!