If you were to peer into a kitchen in Mexico, such as Chef Ana’s of our Hola Mexico cooking vacation, within the few days leading up to Christmas, there’s a good chance that you would see an assembly line of sorts. The tamales are being made!
Although tamales can be served at any time of the year, they are traditionally made during the Christmas holiday (or the Day of the Dead Celebration) because they are so time and labor intensive. In fact, making tamales takes all day and the process usually begins two or three days prior to the actual making of the tamale.
When a group gets together in the kitchen, or for a cooking class, to make tamales, the group is often called a Tamalada. Today tamales are made of masa (hominy flour dough), then spread on a corn shuck and filled with either chicken, pork, beef, green chile, cheese, vegetables or fruit.
The origin of the tamale can be traced back to pre-colonial times when Aztec women cooked for army soldiers and needed a food that was easy to transport and save for later consumption. In order to cook the tamales, and make them crispy brown, they’d bury them in hot ashes. Later, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, their cooking methods changed and tamales were steamed either underground or uncovered. This new method also gave way to new superstitions: if the tamale stuck to the pot, those who ate the tamale would receive good luck and they’d be protected on the battlefield.
Hopefully you have a new appreciation for the tamale! If you have elementary-aged children at home, they would enjoy reading Too Many Tamales written by Gary Soto. It’s a great holiday story about a little girl who loses her mother’s wedding ring in the tamale masa.
To discover more Mexican culinary traditions, take part in our Hola Mexico cooking vacation in Tepoztlan, Mexico.
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Originally published December 7, 2012.