Let’s be honest, we don’t need a reason to celebrate the tamale. Sure, it is present at most celebrations across Latin America, but a reason to partake is certainly not required. The food staple of Latin American culture has witnessed our birthdays, our weddings, and our holidays. Today (March 23), on National Tamale Day, we honor and pay reverence to the fare that nourishes our bellies and our souls.
First, a super brief little appetizer of history before we get to the main course. It is widely accepted that tamales were first cooked up in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 BC. (Mesoamerica is basically Mexico and Central America before they were sliced up and made into countries.) Over time different regions used their local resources and different variations to make a tamale.
For the most part, tamales are made up of a pressed corn, a meat of your choice, and wrapped in leaves or husks. But, it’s the customization of each of those items that make it unique to the country or territory they are made in. The tamale is also cooked in a very similar way. Masa is smeared on the inside of a corn husk, a small portion of meat is added, the husk is folded and steamed together by the dozens. The process sounds simple. But anyone who has ever made tamales knows it takes less time for paint to cure on a lowrider than to make tamales.
Let’s take a look at five varying ways tamales are prepared and devoured across Latin America, along with some interesting fun facts.
First, let’s stop at our closest neighbor Mexico and peel back the deliciousness on the tamale there. Mexican tamales are mostly made of masa, lard, and meat. Either chicken or pork are cooked/marinated in a salsa verde or chile colorado (red or green chile).
Further south to Guatemala, tamales are made with plantain leaves as opposed to corn husks. While chicken and pork remain the staple meats, bell peppers, olives, capers, and raisins are added to their tamales.
Costa Rican tamales are also generally wrapped in a plantain leaf. They include rice, peas, and potatoes in their tamales. Costa Ricans are known to earth their tamales with a sweet and spicy sauce called Salsa Lizano. It is made with carrots, dried chiles, and white wine vinegar.
Colombians may have some of the spiciest moves on the dance floor, but their tamales have very little heat, if at all. While they stick with the staple yellow masa like the Mexican tamales, they are larger and wrapped in leaves. Colombian tamales have carrots and potatoes, and are made with chicken or pork.
A quick trip across the Atlantic to Cuba. Cubans make their tamales very similar to Mexican tamales. However, a lesser known tamale dish is their tamal en cazuela (tamale casserole).
Of course tamales vary from region to region just like any other cuisine. Regardless of how you enjoy them, today is the perfect day to get the salsa, the stretchy pants, and enjoy a plateful of tamales.