The tamal or tamale dates back to as early as 7000 BC in pre-columbian history when Aztec women would tag along as cooks during battles. Because battles were long and far from home, sustainable food that was portable and easily heated was required and because tamales could be premade in large quantities, they quickly became popular. According to history, tamales were originally buried in hot ashes. Later the Aztecs learned that steaming the tamales in underground pits or uncovered pots was the best way to cook them.
The tamal has been adopted by many Latin American cultures and therefore the tamal’s size, shape, color and filling has changed. The tamal I grew up with comes from Northern Mexico, which is made using dried corn husks, but wrappings change based on the region. Some are made with edible leaves, such as banana leaves.
In my family, we make tamales with masa de maize (corn dough) spread on dried corn husks and filled with chicken in green salsa, pork in red salsa, or rajas con queso (roasted poblano peppers and cheese) for the vegetarians like me. By the way, my wonderful mother makes a separate vegetarian batch just for me. Making tamales sounds fairly easy, right? Wrong! Because of its time consuming preparation, the tamale is no longer an everyday food. The tamal is now associated with holidays such as Christmas and/or a special family gathering. During the holidays, I remember watching my mother and aunts make over 100 tamales at any given time. The preparation was intense but also beautiful, filled with laughter and love. Tamales warm my heart and stomach.
As a food lover in Chicago, I’ve noticed the tamal revolution has arrived here. You can find gourmet tamales at upscale Mexican restaurants or a more traditional tamal at local bars sold out of a cooler by the roving “Tamale Man” — true story I swear. Learn how to make authentic tamales for yourself at one of our Cooking Vacations to Mexico — and get a winter dose of warm weather in the process!
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