The Origin of Mexico’s Portable Meal Dates Back Thousands of Years
By Chris Mejia
For many, tamales conjure fond memories of family cooking parties and winter holiday get-togethers. If you’re Mexican, or Mexican American, chances are that your Mexican abuela (grandmother) passed down her secret family recipe for handmade tamales through the age-old tradition of family batch cooking intended to feed everyone in the extended family. Crowded into the kitchen together, an assembly line of aunts, uncles, and cousins were schooled in the proper technique of carefully wrapping corn masa (cornmeal dough) in husks of corn or banana leaf, before the neatly wrapped packages carrying the tasty family tradition were lowered and stacked into a large metal pot and slowly steamed, until cooked through to perfection.
Unwrapping a freshly steamed tamal and cutting into its delicate corn crumb is one of the oldest epicurean traditions that persists in the Americas. The tamal dates back far before the Spanish settlement of the Americas, estimated to have appeared as a prominent culinary preparation of corn sometime between 5000 BC and 8000 BC. While few dispute the overwhelming archeological evidence that points to the tamal being invented in what is Mexico today, this pre-Columbian dish has traveled throughout the Americas. In fact, a version of the tamal can be found in virtually every Native American culture, from Alaska down to the tip of Chile. While the exact origin is not entirely documented, most food historians believe that tamales were first prepared in the geographic region known today as the Mexican state of Oaxaca (pronounced “waa·haw·kuh”). This hypothesis should come as no surprise, as Oaxaca is also known as the “cradle of corn.”
Corn, as it’s known today (on the cobb), does not grow wild. Corn is a man-made invention; it is a highly hybridized creation that originated over a thousand years ago, born from the modest grass, teocintle (pronounced “tee·oh·cint·lay”). Through genetic testing, we know that teocintle, which is endemic to the region of Oaxaca and still grows wildly there today, is the genetic great great grandfather of all modern-day corn. Interestingly, teocintle is a grass that has no cobb. The cobb came later, as man selected the biggest teocintle flowers for cross breeding over generations of genetic selection, or hybridization.
The Mexica people (pre-Spanish indigenous that lived in the area that is central Mexico today), who were great agriculturalists, were known to have a saying that (loosely translated) went, “there is no corn without man, and there is no man without corn.” That’s how important this ancient symbiotic crop was to the survival and triumph of pre-Spanish man in the Americas. So successful was this ancient corn-fed empire, upon their arrival in the Americas, the Spanish named this newfound land, “Mexico,” after the native people who prospered there before their arrival.
According to food historians, the Mexicas developed the tamal preparation as a convenient way to transport cooked food that could be eaten during travel, on hunting expeditions, and in battle. Wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, or edible tree bark, tamales were easily transported, heated, and eaten on the go. Most likely, tamales were first cooked by burying them in earthen pits with hot coals, surrounded by large green leaves, that created a type of steam slow cooker. Later, after the arrival of the Spanish settlers with their metal pots and pans, this cooking method was adapted and tamales were steamed in covered pots, as they are today.
The tamales of ancient times likely differed greatly from those commonly eaten today, as pork, beef, lamb, goat, and other ingredients brought from Europe didn’t exist in the Americas before the Spaniards brought them in the 1500s. Tamales of ancient times likely didn’t include meat at all. Without refrigeration and in hot conditions, meat would have spoiled quickly. The first tamales were likely made of pure corn masa, perhaps with the occasional addition of local berries or endemic fruits.
The variety of tamales prepared today is practically unlimited. Some are savory, some spicy, and some are sweet. Both meat and vegetarian preparations are popular in Mexico today. Some are wrapped in corn husks, and others in banana leaves. Even the preparation of the corn masa itself varies greatly, with some masas being very dense and others that elicit a delicate, almost airy, quality.
While the variety of tamales available in Mexico are only limited by the imagination of their makers, the following are the most common tamales you’ll likely encounter:
Tamales de elote. These tamales made of 100% sweet corn (elote in Spanish) are very popular throughout Mexico. They tend to be sweet but are not considered a desert tamal. Locals eat these tamales topped with spicy hot sauce, providing a bright contrast to the natural sweetness of the corn. It’s likely that Native Americans from what is the Eastern United States today, first introduced corn as tamales to the pilgrims, who later adapted them into the cornbread we know today.
Tamales verdes. Per their name, these green (verde in Spanish) tamales are made with a spicy blend of tomatillo and green chilies and are usually available with pork or chicken, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves.
Tamales de rajas. Long strips of spicy green chilies (rajas in Spanish) are combined with white string cheese in these tamales that are especially popular in the central parts of Mexico. The spiciness can vary from mild to nuclear, so be sure to ask “son muy picantes” (are they very spicy?) before ordering.
Tamales de mole. Sometimes referred to as rojo (red) tamales, these savory and sometimes spicy tamales can be made with mole or another red salsa, depending on the maker/region, and usually include chicken.
Tamales de frijol. A puree of black or pinto beans (frijoles in Spanish), often complemented with a white string cheese, are the fillings for these tamales which are very popular in the Mexican states of Morelos and Puebla. They are very tasty on their own but are often covered in some type of mole as a finishing sauce.
Tamales Oaxaqueños. This is the generic term referring to tamales that are typically prepared and served in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Wrapped in green banana leaves, the fillings of these Oaxacan-style tamales are varied, so you should ask to be sure. Often, but not always, these tamales are 100% plant based, and are considered by some to be the most authentic of modern-day tamales (remember that Oaxaca is known as the “cradle of corn”).
Tamales dulces. Sweet (dulce in Spanish) desert tamales are sometimes made with masa that is dyed distinctively pink using red vegetable coloring, and can include raisins, chocolate, pineapple, berries, anise, or other similar sweet fillings. These festive tamales are most popular around the winter holidays but can also be found year-round.
Tamales are best when eaten fresh, right out of the steaming cooking pot, but are also easily refrigerated or even frozen, and reheated later. While you might see tamales on the menu of many Mexican restaurants, in Mexico (and in some parts of the United States), the best tamales are purchased directly from specialty stands that make nothing but tamales and vend them right from their big steam pots. Tamales are also commonly sold in the streets throughout Mexico, served from ice chests that serve as insulative containers to retain warmth. But caution should be exercised when purchasing tamales from such vendors on the roadside, as the freshness of food stored in this manner cannot be guaranteed and can lead to foodborne illness. When in doubt, follow the locals — virtually every Mexican municipality will have a preferred tamale maker, you just need to ask the locals, “Dónde puedo encontrar los mejores tamales?” (Where can I find the best tamales? in Spanish).
A couple of my favorite tamal stands in Baja California:
- “Tamales Muñoz” in Tijuana, located inside of the Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana’s central produce market (you’ll find convenient and relatively safe paid parking inside the market; ask any vendor for a parking discount voucher; payment in cash only)
- “Tamales Liz” located on the southside of Playas de Rosarito on Blvd. Popotla (the main street heading South from Rosarito) on the East side of the street, at the four-way-stop with Blvd. 2000.
Chris Mejia is an experienced culinary guide, food writer, and self-proclaimed “gastronomer” who has spent years exploring and curating the best of Baja California’s vibrant food scene. Follow Chris on Instagram and Facebook @MrStretchyPants.