Tamales are one of the most iconic Mexican dishes ever. Along with tacos, they are arguably among the best-known kinds of Mexican food. Tamales are beloved in Mexico and abroad, and with good reason. They are soft, warm, tasty, delicious treats, and good for almost any occassion, special or otherwise. In case you have been living in some other food planet and you’ve never had one, I strongly suggest you keep reading!

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20 Amazing Facts About Tamales

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Tamales are one of the most widespread dishes across the whole of Mexico, and some of the most popular foods too. Honestly, I don’t know a single Mexican person who would turn down a serving of tamales. They’re just too good! Unfortunately, if you don’t live in Mexico, you are missing out on some of the most delicious kinds of tamales. Don’t believe me? Check out these facts.

green tamale
Tamale with chicken and green chili sauce

20 Amazing Facts About Tamales

1. The word tamales comes from the ancient Aztec word “tamalli” which means “wrapped”. It’s obvious this refers to the way tamales are always wrapped in leaves before cooking.

2. Mexico is the birthplace of corn and, obviously, of tamales. They are so commonplace that every region has its own recipe. Probably every single abuela does too! It’s estimated that there are as many as 500 (or perhaps 5000, who knows?) different kinds of tamales in Mexico. You could eat tamales all your life and never get to taste them all!

Making tamales in a steamer pot
Making tamales in a steamer pot

3. Tamales are all made with corn dough and lard, wrapped in leaves, and steamed, but there are infinite variations to the basic recipe. They can be sweet or spicy. They can be filled with meat, pork, chicken, fish, cheese, vegetables, chili peppers, fruit, sauce, or nothing at all. They can be wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, avocado leaves, maguey leaves, or even foil or plastic bags. Tamal creativity knows no bounds!

4. Tamales have been around since the dawn of civilization in the American continent. The ancient Olmecs and Maya made tamales, and so did the Aztecs. Their tamales were probably very different from modern-day recipes, but they were certainly made of corn dough and wrapped in leaves.

Veracruz style tamales
Tamales wrapped in banana leaves

5. Tamales were likely eaten during holidays and festivities in ancient times, and that hasn’t changed much. Here in Mexico, tamales are served for almost any occasion: birthdays, christenings, Christmas, Day of the Dead, or any other special day. Also, you could just have them for breakfast. Or lunch. Or supper. Because, tamales!

6. The Aztecs had two holidays when tamales were the main dish. One was Atamalcualiztli, in which they celebrated the birth of the corn god. During that time, they had plain, unsalted tamales filled with vegetables that simbolized cleansing and renewal. The other festival was Izcalli, in honor of the fire god. Tamales were specially made and distributed on that day.

Ancient tamales
Aztec women making tamales, from the Florentine Codex

7. Nowadays, tamales also have their special holiday. On January 6th, Mexicans have a special cake called Rosca de Reyes, with a little figurine of the baby Jesus hidden inside. If you get the lucky slice of cake with the figurine in it, then you have to provide tamales for the Candlemas party, on February 2nd. That’s the rule!

8. Aside from holidays and festivities, tamales are also appropriate for such ordinary occasions as breakfast or supper. In fact, every morning, you can find a lady selling tamales on almost every street corner in Mexico City. During the evening, you can hear vendors shouting, “Tamales!”. Actually, tamales could be classified as Mexican fast food. You know, because you can just go out, buy some, and dig in.

Tamal oaxaqueño
Oaxaca tamale

9. Tamales may be fast food, but they are always homemade. There are people who make a living out of making tamales because there’s such a great demand for them. On estimate, about a hundred million tamales are eaten in Mexico every year. That’s a whole lot of corn dough!

10. Making tamales can be a massive undertaking. It usually requires more than one person, specially if you are making a lot of them. The normal amount of tamales you would make in one session could be about ten dozen of them. What? Couldn’t you make just a few of them? No, of course not! That is tamale blasphemy. It’s either a lot or none at all! You can always freeze them for later.

Kinds Of Tamales

Remember I said there are possibly 500 (or 5000, who knows?) different kinds of tamales in Mexico? Well, you can be sure that’s true. That means it would be impossible to describe each and every one of them, but I can tell you about the most famous kinds of tamales. Some of them are quite surprising!

11. In Chiapas province, tamales can take about 4 days to make, but they are some of the most delicious and renowned kinds of tamales there are. Most famous of all are the tamales de chipilín, made with a leafy green vegetable native to Mexico.

tamal chipilin
Chipilin and chicken tamales – Source: http://blogmenumania.seccionamarilla.com.mx/

12. In Oaxaca province, tamales are made with the famous black mole, but there are other more exotic varieties. For example, there are iguana meat tamales. Does that sound tasty?

black mole tamale
Black mole tamale – Source: http://www.oem.com.mx/

13. In the northern province of Sinaloa, there are tamales barbones with shrimp filling. They are made so that the long shrimp beards will stick out of the dough.

tamales barbones
Tamales barbones – Source: http://mazatleco.com/

14. Michoacan province is famous for its corundas. These are little, triangular tamales filled with vegetables and cheese, and seasoned with tequesquite, a natural mineral salt.

corundas
Corundas -Source: http://moreliafilmfest.com/en/comida-tradicional-de-michoacan/

15. The Yucatan peninsula has the most diverse kinds of tamales in Mexico. Some of them are tiny, and others are large enough for several people. This is also the home of the spiciest tamales in the country, made with habanero chilies, such as the famous brazo de reina.

brazo de reina
Brazo de reina tamale – Source: http://www.en-yucatan.com.mx/

16. In the central province of Guanajuato, there are tamales de muerto, or tamales for the dead, which are made out of blue corn. These tamales are laid out for the offering altars on the Day of the Dead.

tamales de muerto
Tamales de muerto – Source: http://losgastronautas.com/

17. In the Huasteca region, people make the largest tamales ever. They are called zacahuil, and they can be up to 10 feet long and weigh 100 pounds. These are made in large stone ovens and shared with the entire community.

zacahuil
Making zacahuil – Source: http://www.mexicoenmicocina.com/

18. In Veracruz, people make sweet corn tamales. Normal tamale dough is made out of corn boiled in lime powder. However, sweet corn dough is made out of ground, ripe corn kernels that haven’t been processed with lime. This makes for softer and sweeter tamales, but they are not sugary. The filling can be very spicy!

sweet corn tamales
Sweet corn tamales with green chili sauce – Source: http://www.kiwilimon.com/

19. In Mexico City, you can find guajolotas, or tamale sandwiches. That’s right! It’s a tamale between two slices of white bread. People buy these on street corners and order them to go so they can have their big, fat sandwich on their long commute to work. It’s a practical way to have breakfast, but it’s also a carb and calorie bomb. We’re not talking healthy eating here!

tamale sandwich
Guajolota – Source: http://www.siap.gob.mx/

20. For the children, people usually make sweet tamales. In this case, sugar is added to the corn dough instead of salt, and it is also dyed pink. These tamales can have raisins or jam as filling. Sometimes, they are also made with pineapple or shredded coconut. There’s no better birthday food!

Sweet tamale
Sweet tamale

My Tamale Tradition

Mom and I usually get together and make a big batch of tamales for the Day of the Dead. Many Mexican families do exactly the same thing, but for us, this is a very special cooking session. 

Ten years ago, my grandma was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As she lay in bed, she still had hopes of getting better somehow, and she said the first thing she wanted to do when she got back on her feet was make some tamales. Sadly, she never got better, and she never got to make tamales again. Since then, Mom and I have made tamales for Grandma every year on the Day of the Dead, using her recipe. She liked making tamales with corn, cheese, and zucchini filling.

Mole tamale
Mole tamale

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll do that this year, because Mom has to be at the hospital with my sister so she can get ready for a bone marrow transplant. Even though I’m feeling a little down about that, I might convince myself to make some tamales on my own. Or not. You see, attitude is very important when you make tamales, and I will tell you about that in a second. 

Tamale Recipes To Try

In case you are feeling adventurous, I have found some delicious recipes so you can make tamales yourself! Before you decide to try, I must tell you that there’s a tamale superstition. It is said that before you start cooking, you must leave your woes and worries out of the kitchen. If you are not calm and cheerful while making tamales, they will not taste good. You have been warned!

Mexican-Style Tamales

Easy Sweet Corn Tamales

Sinaloa-Style Beef Tamales

Step-by-step Tamale Tutorial

Shredded Pork Tamales

Pork Tamales With A Not-So-Secret Ingredient

Chile Ancho And Meat Tamales

Authentic Mexican Tamales Recipe

I hope you have fun making tamales! And I hope I can improve my mood enough to leave it outside the kitchen door.

Have you ever had tamales? What kind? Leave a comment!

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24 thoughts on “20 Amazing Facts About Authentic Tamales

  1. I didn’t know they were made with corn dough and lard! I agree with you about the attitude having to be right. My family is Jamaican and my attitude has to be right before I make a dish. Thanks for the history lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! I didn’t know there were that many kinds! I experimented with potato-roasted poblano tamales with red chile sauce. They were pretty tasty! I want to try to make the ones wrapped in banana leaves. I just love those!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was the English Learner Coordinator at Venice High School, we had our annual Awards Night (A tradition, I am proud to say, I started). The first year, we hired a Oaxacan woman to make 200 tamales. In Southern Mexico, they wrap them in banana leaves like the Salvadorans do. Those have always been my favorites because they’re so moist! Everyone was told they could only have one tamale, but somehow people got more than one & there were none left for the teachers OR the students who got the awards!
    Unfortunately, we had to end that before it had a chance to become a tradition!
    I was very sad too, as I had been anticipating eating the tamale for more then a month! 😉 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was born and raised in South Texas, so tamales hold a very special place in my heart. To this day, Christmas just isn’t the same if we can’t get good, homemade tamales.

    FANTASTIC job! Thank you for posting such a fun and informative blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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