Nahua woman preparing el Zacahuil (tamal gigante). Photo by Jorge Ontiveros – Ethnographers report up to 370 different kinds of tamales , including el zacahuil, which is 3 feet long, weighs about 150 pounds, and requires most of the leaves of a banana tree to wrap it. While almost all tamales are steamed, a few are distinctive in that they are baked either in the ground or in a bread oven. Other tamales that are distinctive include those made by the Otomi people near San Miguel de Allende, which are pastel-colored and fresh fish clapiques of the coast, prepared since the time of Moctezuma II. Photo by Jorge Ontiveros, from the book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes. All rights reserved.

Tamales, of course, are a traditional favorite this time of year in Mexico, and are served whenever friends and family gather, starting from Dia de La Virgen de Guadalupe all the way through Dia de Los Reyes or Three Kings’ Day on January 6th, and even beyond on Dia de La Candelaria or Candelmas (Feb. 2nd). The following is excerpted from my book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl)

 Tamales: A Historical Look

Tamales are an essential part of many Mexican festivals. Preparation is complex, time-consuming and an excellent example of Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the women. Preparing tamales is a ritual that has been part of Mexican life since pre-Hispanic times, with special fillings and forms designated for each specific festival or life event. Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, considered one of the father’s of culinary history, wrote in an amazing 1590 text based on personal observations, detailing that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamalli (in Nahuatl):

“Salted wide tamales, pointed tamales, white tamales… rolled-shaped tamales, tamales with beans forming a seashell on top [with] grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales; turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, abode-shaped tamales, braised ones; unleavened tamales, honey tamales, beeswax tamales, tamales with grains of maize, gourd tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. These were passed around in a basket at banquets, [and custom mandated that they] were held in the left hand”[9] <END SIDEBAR>

A Step-by-Step Guide to the Ancient Art of Making Tamales

  1. First, to prepare the cornhusks: Rinse and soak them in a sink full of warm water for about 2 hours. You will need to carefully separate them when they get soft. Try to not tear cornhusks. It is easier to make the tamales if the husks are in one piece. After the husks are soft, shake to remove excess water and pat them dry with a paper towel.
Drawings by Verriclay
  1. To fill the tamales: Pick up one husk; lay it across your hand, wide part of the husk should be facing your body and thin part outside (think of a triangle, the thin part should be away from your body and the thick part toward you).
Drawings by Vericlay

3. Scoop up about 2 tbsp. of masa dough with a spatula, and then smear the husk creating a 1/8 in. thick layer. Cover about 2/3 of the husk with masa; leave 1/3 uncovered on one side.

4.  Similarly, cover the bottom 2/3 of the husk, and leave the top 1/3 uncovered. You need to leave the top and side uncovered so you can fold it up later.

5. Now, lay several husks out on the counter as you put the masa on them, between five and ten husks.

Drawings by Vericlay

6. Add the meat or stuffing of your choice. Take about 1 tablespoon of meat, or the desired stuffing, then lay it on the masa dough about one inch from the left edge, do not over stuff the tamal, as you will need to consider room to close it.

7. To fold:Starting on the left side roll the tamal all the way to the right edge.

Now, fold the top of the husk over (think of an envelope) and lay tamal on the counter, fold facing down.

Drawings by Vericlay

            To Cook: In a steamer pot, add about 2 cups of water, then start piling the tamales so they stand upright. The folded end of the tamale should be on the bottom. Try to fill the pot so the tamales do not fall over and begin to unfold. Cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil, then reduce to medium low heat and cook, covered, for 2 hours. Check water several times as you will need to add water frequently, so as not let your pot to run out of water.

Corn Tamales /Tamales de Elote

An abuelita (meaning “grandmother” but also a term used to refer to the oldest generation of women in the village) describes how the women gather to carry on a tradition that has been passed through the generations, making tamales de elote:

“Three pair of hands, work together, seamlessly …in a process [that] includes husking the corn, cutting it off the cob, grinding the kernels in the molino [mill] with pieces of cinnamon, breaking fifteen eggs and separating out the yolks, opening cans of sweetened condensed milk…[and beating] all the ingredients together in the masa for a long time…. Next we fill the husks with the masa [dough]… sprinkle raisins on top. Finally we fold the husks to enclose the dough.”

Corn Tamales

(Makes approximately 35 tamales)
3 ½ quarts (14 cups) fresh corn kernels
1 cup corn meal
1 cup butter
1/2 cup lard or shortening
1 tbsp. baking powder

1cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tbsp. salt
70 cornhusks; wash and pat dry
fresh salsa of your choice

Use a blender or food processor to create a purée from the corn niblets (uncooked). Transfer corn mixture to a large mixing bowl with the corn meal, beat by hand adding butter and lard slowly. Keep beating, for 5 minutes adding sugar, eggs, salt and baking powder. Beat for an additional 20 minutes using an electric mixer on slow or by hand until smooth, set aside and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Prepare tamales by adding a couple of spoonfuls of the mix in double corn husk (so using 2 overlapping husks), and fold the tamale according to instructions (above). Serve these with your favorite fresh salsa, crema Mexicana and queso cotija.

            To test the consistency of masa, drop a small ball in a glass of water, if it floats, it is ready. To make sure there is sufficient water in the bottom of your steamer pot when cooking the tamales,  put a penny in the water. The penny should rattle the entire time that the tamales are steaming– if the penny stops rattling, you know that you need to add more water.


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