What Is a Tamale?

Nicole Austin

A popular Mesoamerican dish made of masa, tamales have seen a rise in popularity in recent years.

Tamales are a traditional dish in Central and South American countries, but chances are you will probably be most familiar with the popular Mexican tamale.

If I'm being honest, if you're a member of my family you're quite familiar with tamales because we never leave Trader Joe's without at least a pack or two.

Dating back several centuries, tamales serve up a complete meal in one convenient package. They are filling, nutritious and delicious!

With a wide variety of stuffing including corn dough (also known as masa) and seasoned meats and veggies, tamales are wrapped in corn husk or banana leaf then steamed or boiled to create a unique and flavorful meal.

Tamales Photo

What Is a Tamale?

A tamale is a popular dish with roots in Mesoamerican culture traditionally made of masa, a thick cake of dough made from nixtamalized corn or other fillings.

This cake of dough is wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed before serving. The result is flavorful and delicious.

The History of Tamales

Tamales are a dish that date back as far as 8000 to 5000 B.C., with archeological evidence proving that Aztec and Mayan cultures consumed them.

Now that’s a traditional dish! Early tamales were, of course, quite simple, due to lack of resources - roasted beans and squash were main staples.

Europeans changed the ingredients by introducing chicken and pork, as well as a variety of vegetables and fruits.

Tamales have existed in various forms in Central and South America for thousands of years, and have even been adapted into casseroles and pies.

In Mexican culture, tamales are representative of community, family, and kinship.

Symbolically, tamales are significant because they embody sustenance and provision, and are even part of many Christmas celebrations.

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What Is Inside a Tamale?

While you can customize a tamale to contain as much, or as little, as you’d like, there are a few basic ingredients that most tamales contain:

  • Corn husk - The corn husk exterior is a crucial element of tamales. Not only will it hold all the ingredients to form, but it will prevent them from drying out when the tamale is steamed.
  • Masa - This cornmeal dough is a staple ingredient and is prepared by mixing dried cornmeal with a broth (usually left behind from the meat filling preparation), lard, and seasonings.
  • Protein - Typically chicken, pork, and/or beans, seasoned protein is often found in tamales to add substance and flavor.
  • Cheese - Round out your delicious tamale with soft, melted cheese of your choice.
  • Vegetables - A variety of vegetables will add body to the flavor profile of your tamale. Try peppers or a homemade chili paste to spice things up a bit! Some vegetarians or vegans also add potatoes.

Keeping the inside of a tamale simple will appeal to more family members and guests - you can always add toppings if you want to customize your tamale!

Add salsa, sour cream, sauteed vegetables, jalapeño peppers, queso, guacamole or black olives when it’s time to serve!

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How To Make Tamales

While learning how to make tamales can seem a bit daunting to most, with the proper ingredients and technique, making tamales is likely easier than you think!

  1. Soak your corn husks in a bowl of hot water for half an hour.
  2. Prepare desired fillings. You’ll want to cook your meats ahead of time - this is a great time to shred or cube any meats.
  3. Make your masa dough then cover the mixing bowl with a damp paper towel to keep moist.
  4. Place a corn husk on your work surface. Spread a quarter cup of dough in the center to about a quarter inch of thickness and add fillings. (Don’t add too much - you need to close the tamale!)
  5. Bring up the long ends of the husk and fold with a slight overlap. Fold up the bottom of the husk and press to seal. Optional: Tear a strip from a husk to use as a string and tie a bow around the tamale- makes for an adorable presentation piece!
  6. Steam on the stovetop or cook in the Instant Pot.

You can also cook tamales in the oven.

Can You Freeze Tamales?

Wondering if you can make a bunch of tamales at once and freeze them for later? You're in luck because yes - you can freeze tamales easily!

Allow them to cool completely, then transfer them to a freezer safe storage bag and freeze for up to three months. Reheat them by microwaving them wrapped in damp paper towels to retain moisture.

Tamales Picture

You can also keep tamales in the fridge for up to 5 days, or longer if they are vacuum sealed.

Do You Eat the Husk of a Tamale?

Okay, so how do you eat tamales? Unsurprisingly, this is a very common question. In short — the corn husk of a tamale is removed before eating.

Some of the risks involved with not removing the corn husk, apart from the taste, would be stomach upset and choking issues, especially in young children.

Think of the husk as a super eco-friendly wrapper that you don’t feel awful about tossing, or even better, composting!

Unique Tamale Fillings

  • Seafood - Lobster, shrimp, or scallops, spicy jack cheese, jalapenos, cilantro, lime juice, and garlic powder.
  • Vegetables - Zucchini, tomatoes, mozzarella, corn, and black beans.
  • Cheese - Sharp and mild cheddar blended with queso and green chile salsa.
  • Dessert - Raisins, cinnamon, sugar, and red apples or chocolate, nuts, caramel, and green apples.

Nicole is a self-published author of fiction novels, and a lover of food and spending time in the kitchen with her six children. She lives in coastal Maine where she loves exploring new recipes especially those that can save time, money and wow a crowd.