Tamales may have Mesoamerican origins. But the food belongs to all of Latin America. The masa-heavy dish is most commonly known through its Nahuatl name and has existed since the pre-Columbian era. “We know that tamales were probably the earliest corn-based product made in Mesoamerica,” Claudia Alarcón – a food writer who’s had the pleasure of trying many of Latin America’s tamales – told me over the phone. Similarly, in South America, the indigenous populations also ate a tamal-like meal called humita.
While some of the elements of tamal have remained the same, the Spaniards also had a profound impact. “They’ve definitely changed,” Alarcón added. “Previous to the arrival of the Spaniards, there was no chicken, there was no pork, there was no lard. So tamales were made of the nixtamalized corn and water.” The introduction of lard made the masa softer. Previously, they resembled something closer to bread.
One of the tamal’s best qualities is how customizable they are. Made with everything from corn to plátanos to yuca and filled with almost anything you can imagine, they offer something for everyone. And because you can easily add or remove ingredients, it may be impossible to find someone who makes your preferred tamal just like your abuelita does. The outside of tamales are just as diverse as the inside. “There’s definitely a lot of variations on what to wrap tamales with depending on availability and environmental reasons, like whatever grows there, that’s what you use,” Alarcón said.
Tamales are also innumerable. Counting all of the versions that Latin America has to offer is a challenge. You’ll probably never do it. When Alarcón did field research in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, for example, she collected recipes for at least 75 different tamales.
Even though there’s seemingly so many things that set Latin America’s tamales apart from each other, for many, they conjure up similar memories. As Carmen Lomas Garza’s Tamalada painting so perfectly captures, making tamales is a family activity. So whether you’re Mexican or Venezuelan, you likely have memories of cleaning corn husks/plátano leaves, of doing your part to make the tamal-making process smoother.
Because it’s still tamal season, we’re looking at 10 that bring us joy during the holidays and throughout the year. If we left out your favorites, name them below in the comments and help us get one step closer to becoming a tamal encyclopedia.
Tamales Verdes y Rojos
Tamales verdes and tamales rojos are easily one of Mexico’s most classic tamales. People enjoy these chicken or pork treats – filled with either green or red chile sauce – year round. Tamales verdes/rojos are necessary on el Día de la Calendaria in February. On Día de Reyes on January 6, many Mexican families eat roscas, which has a plastic baby inside. Whoever ends up with the toy serves as padrinos del Niño, and as such, must bring tamales on Día de la Calendaria. But there’s no wrong time to eat tamales verdes/rojos. Alarcón calls it the everyday tamal and explains that they fill the markets of Mexico City and make it onto tables for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Photo: Penny De Los Santos
Known as darasa, bimena, or dani, Garifuna-style tamales don’t use any corn products. Instead, green bananas and coconut milk make up the delicious treat. Grated bananas, coconut milk, salt – and in some cases orange juice – come together to form the dough. Darasa’s wrapped in hojas de maxán before being cooked. The savory dish can accompany fish or soup.
Tamales de Dulce
One of the most appealing things about tamales is that they satisfy both sweet and savory palates. According to blogger Mely Martínez, some plan ahead and set aside a bit of their masa to make tamales de dulce. And those people are the ones who are living life to the fullest, because they get the best of both worlds.
While sugar is a necessary component for this version, you can also add pineapple chunks, berries, raisins, dried fruits, dulce de leche, or shredded coconut for added sweetness. Unlike some other tamales, these may end up bright pink because of added food dye.
North of 60
There’s nothing snack-sized about a Nicaraguan nacatamal. Nicoyas stuff plantain leaves with a healthy dose of masa, rice, pork, tomato, olives, potatoes, and raisins. (Though the tomato is mostly popular in Managua.) The Millón family of Leon sells about 600 nacatamales a week – a process that takes four days – and calls the dish a perfect balance of indigenous and Spanish influences, according to Munchies. Their recipe calls for 14 ingredients – 7 of which are indigenous, and 7 of which are Spanish. Though you can just eat the nacatamal as is, some people like to pair their meal with white bread or tortillas.
Strictly speaking, humitas/humintas aren’t tamales. Masa harina has no place in a humita. Instead, the savory versions require a mixture of freshly ground choclo (or corn), cream, eggs, cheese, garlic, and onion. But the cooking process is reminiscent of tamales. The mixture ends up wrapped inside a corn husk before getting steamed to perfection. Enjoyed in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Argentina, humitas have slight variations depending on where you try them. The sweet version of humitas calls for milk, sugar, cinnamon, manjarblanco, and raisins.
Tamales de Frijoles
Tamales de frijoles – much like tamales – vary across Latin America. In Mexico, some versions require masa, chile de arbol seco, and black beans. This delicious mixture ends up inside Hoja Santa leaves. Substitute a few ingredients, and you can enjoy yourself a sweet version of these tamales de frijol. In other parts of Mexico, the tamales call for frijoles ayocote, and they’re cooked in corn husks.
In Honduras, you’ll also find tamales de frijoles. The tamalitos only require a few ingredients, but they’re a bit on the dry side. That’s why you probably won’t see this version without a dollop or two of mantequilla.
As the name suggests, tamales colorados pack a punch of color. Popular at Christmastime, New Year’s and during special occasions in Guatemala, tamales colorados get their coloring from the use of achiote and tomatoes. The tamales also include sesame seeds, tomatillo, a hint of cinnamon, onions, garlic, and cloves. The inside includes either chicken or pork. What makes them truly special is the use of hojas de Maxán, which sort of look like plantain leaves. Maxán leaves imbue the tamal with a unique taste. And of course, no tamal is complete without a side of bread.
Though the Guatemalan version share a name with Sinaloa’s tamales colorados – or tamales nixcocos – the two versions are very different. The Sinaloan corn-based versions require pork lard, chicken broth, and palo de Brasil, which gives the tamal its red coloring. This recipe mixed the chicken broth with the palo de Brasil until the liquid almost resembled agua de jamaica. The bright uncooked masa is folded into corn husks before being placed in a steamer. The water also gets a hit of palo de Brasil and almost instantly turns a reddish hue.
Photo: Arepa & Co
Come December, it’s hallaca season in Venezuelan households. The labor-intensive tamales are easily recognizable because of the bright colored masa – the result of using onoto seeds. The masa comes together with Harina PAN, chicken broth, and onoto seeds. The filling contains a mix of stewed meats, red bell peppers, olives, almonds, raisins, and onions. But, like any other tamal recipe, the ingredients tend to vary. After being assembled and wrapped in two layers of plantain leaves, they need to be steamed or boiled.
Adriana Lopez, who runs the Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen, says hallacas are only available in December because it’s the most “complex dish that you can make in Venezuelan cuisine.”
Tamal de Olla
The words tamal de olla describes many kinds of tamales from across Latin America, but in Panama it refers to a casserole-style dish. Though other Panamanian tamal recipes call for plantain leaves, tamal de olla doesn’t. Instead, the filling and masa are prepared separately before being baked in the oven.
In the Dominican Republic, tamales go by pasteles en hoja. Completely doing away with a corn-based masa, the dough for pasteles require plátanos, pumpkin, tao, and yams. The fillings include beef, chicken, or as Aunt Clara says, “whatever strikes your fancy.”
Puerto Ricans also appreciate the magic of pasteles any time during the year, but especially during the holidays. “Pastel is eaten a lot during Christmas because el jíbaro came from the mountains with those pasteles prepared with guineo and yuca,” said Jesús Manuel Pérez de Leon, who co-owns La Casita Balanca en Villa Palmeras and La Casita Miramar restaurants. “With very little, or with a lot you get something delicious.” The dough – which includes green guineos, milk, achiote oil, potatoes, and milk – makes it slightly different from the Dominican version. Both DR and PR love pasteles made of yuca. Despite yuca being one of the main components, the dish has an orange hue because of the annatto.
While pork and beef are popular pastel fillings, around Puerto Rico, people also enjoy bacalao or salmorejo de jueyes.