Just within Mexico itself, tamales recipes vary by region and then even more so when it comes to family recipes. For my family, as with many other Mexican families, tamales are a special occasion dish, and though I like to think my family makes the only tamales that matter, the truth is many other Latino cultures make their own versions with slightly different ingredients or approaches. When discussing tamales, you might default to picturing a Mexican tamale because of its long history within the United States: the dish first became popular here in 1893 when it was sold at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Because the historical roots of tamales stem from the geographical area we now recognize as Mexico, it’s not surprising that Mexican tamales are what come to most people’s minds. But it’s important to highlight the variety of tamales across different Latino countries, and the many names they go by.
Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the tamale as a small steamed cake of dough. The dough is made into a thick paste that is spread across a leaf or husk and then filled. The dough is wrapped around the filling into a little package using the husk and steamed until cooked through.
This bare-bones description just scratches the surface of what it takes to make tamales. Trust me, the process is much more involved and time consuming. They’re a special occasion, labor of love kind of dish. Growing up, I only knew my own family’s way of making tamales, but over the years I’ve tried other recipes and methods and learned to appreciate the variability.
Like so much of American food history (whether North, Central, or South), the origins of this dish can be traced back to tall, golden stalks of corn. In Mesoamerican civilizations, corn was highly valued. It was not only a staple of Aztec, Mayan, and Incan nutrition, but it was literally seen as the seed of human creation, based on archaeological evidence and imagery from that time period. In fact, some of the oldest known pieces of Mayan art depict the god of maize along with a bowl of sacred tamales.
Claudia Alarcón, a writer specializing in gastronomy and foodways, shares my respect for tamales in all their forms. Having spent years sampling and gathering traditional recipes of tamales from across Latin America, Alarcón is currently working on a book about the history of and variety of tamales that will also include a collection of recipes.
“If it’s made of corn or corn masa and it’s wrapped in something and steamed then it’s pretty much a tamale,” she says. “Although each place has their own name for it, it’s pretty much fair game to call it a tamal.”
So let’s take a little trip through the tamales of Latin America. First stop: Mexico.
The variations of tamale recipes in Mexico are endless, but there are some basic elements that remain pretty consistent. Pork or chicken tamales are common and usually come in either red or green varieties, based on the type of chile used to make them. Both types are generally wrapped in a corn husk, unless in a more coastal area.
“When you go to the coastal areas, the south, and Central America there are banana leaves everywhere,” Alarcón explains. “They grow in people’s yards, so that’s a lot more available than dried corn husks.”
Tamales de dulce, or sweet tamales, are also enjoyed by many. Popular throughout Mexico, they can be made with pecans, chocolate, vanilla, or “any custard type fillings,” says Alarcón, who enjoys tamales made with guava or pineapple. “When they’re made with fresh, tropical fruits they’re so yummy.”
The more traditional dessert tamale is made with masa (the dough), sugar, raisins, and cinnamon. The masa has pink coloring added to distinguish them from their savory counterparts.
In Guatemala, you’ll find yet another wide range of tamales, including tamales colorados, tamales negro, and chuchitos. Tamales colorados are one of the more popular types, containing a dark red savory sauce, green olives, and either chicken, pork, or beef. Tamales negros, typically served at Christmastime, are made with raisins, meat (either turkey, chicken, or pork) and a dark, sweet mole sauce. The most unique among Guatemalan tamales is the chuchito: it’s smaller, filled only with chicken and a simple tomato sauce, and has a thicker layer of masa around the filling. This is the kind you are likely to find sold by street vendors.
For Puerto Ricans, what some would consider a type of tamale is actually called pasteles. These are not made with a corn-based dough. Instead, pasteles are made from a dough of mashed-up green bananas and plantains and root plants yuca and yautia. Filled with seasoned meat or seafood along with olives, raisins, or chickpeas, the pasteles are then wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. The Dominican Republic also enjoys pasteles made this way.
Nicaraguans refer to their dish as Nacatamales. These banana-leaf-wrapped bundles are anything but snack-sized, writes Yara Simón at Remezcla. Nacatamales are packed with rice, pork, tomato, olives, potatoes, and raisins and wrapped up in a plantain leaf.
Although the name may sound specific to Nicaragua, people in Honduras also enjoy this type of masa treat. Alarcón notes that coastal regions benefit from being port locations that bring a diversity of ingredients, which explains how something like raisins make their way into traditional recipes.
Once again taking another name, Venezuela’s tamales are called hallacas. What sets these apart from other tamale variations is the bright colored masa, notes Simón. The color, an orange-red tint, comes from the use of annatto seeds in the dough. Hallacas are filled with stewed meats, red bell peppers, olives, almonds, raisins, and onions.
This little wrapped-up dish has evolved in countless ways across centuries and continents. Alarcón credits this rich variation to the geographic availability of many different ingredients and, of course, family traditions. She says regional recipes and regional ingredients are mainly what drives the variety that exists in tamale making.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” says Alarcón. “Anybody can make tamales with whatever they have available in their yards or in their markets.”