The delicious little packages of corn masa stuffed with filling and wrapped in a corn husk appear around Christmas AND New Year’s; but why are they such an integral part of Latin culture? I have all the answers for you below.
This post has kindly been sponsored by The Hatch Chile Store. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
In order to dive deep into Tamales and their traditions, we first need to understand what Tamales are exactly. I grew up surrounded by them and can assure you, Tamales are delicious! If you haven’t tried one yet, you need to ASAP 😁. (And NO, you don’t eat the wrapper.)
What is a Tamale?
Tamales are a type of steamed dumpling, originating in ancient Mesoamerica, individually wrapped in a softened corn husk to give it shape. Fillings consist of beans, cheese, meat or veggies mixed with a chile sauce (made from hot chile peppers) or mole sauce (peppers and cocoa). The filling is surrounded with a corn dough (called “masa”) made from corn that has been “nixtamalized” by soaking it in pickling lime. This process boosts the corn’s flavor and softens it for easier grinding. Then it is ground and mixed with broth for flavor and lard to make a soft sticky dough.
Tamales can be served plain and eaten right off their corn husk wrapper, but are usually served in restaurants smothered in more chile sauce and melty cheese garnished with a dollop of sour cream and a side of refried beans.
Ever heard of “Hot Tamales”? The phrase came about because tamales are often made with hot chile peppers, so beware if you have a low tolerance for spicy foods!
It’s amazing that there are many people in the US that still have not tried a Tamale! Are you one of them? If so, I highly recommend trying some from The Hatch Chile store! They specialize in growing and selling world renown chile peppers, and all things chile sauce related, which is of course Tamales. Try some out right here.
What is the Tamale tradition?
There are three traditions that specifically involve eating Tamales. Firstly, Tamales are made and eaten during Las Posadas, a Hispanic festival celebrated in Mexico and surrounding countries leading up to Christmas. Second, Hispanic families often gather to make Tamales on Christmas eve, to get lots of help with the labor intensive recipe. Thirdly, Tamales are eaten on New Year’s day for good luck and to have a prosperous new year; the golden corn masa (dough) representing wealth and a pork filling representing the pigs tenacity to press forward and root out (or find) what it’s looking for. Let’s dive a little more into each of these traditions that give us an excuse to eat tamales!
What is Las Posadas?
Las Posadas is a time for communities to gather for the nine evenings before Christmas to re-enact Joseph and Mary’s difficult search for an inn (posada) in Bethlehem. People dress up as the couple, shepherds, angels, etc. and participate in a processional each evening, knocking on neighbors doors where they ask to enter with song. They are sent away and continue with several more homes until coming to a designated home where they are welcomed in and a Fiesta begins. The group walks with candles and/or luminarias, songs and high spirits along the way.
When the last home is reached, a feast is waiting, including traditional Tamales. Their are more songs, dancing, rejoicing, and feasting, followed with a colorful star-shaped piñata representing the star of Jesus. The children delight in breaking this piñata and scrambling for the Christmas candy inside. This whole event repeats itself each night from December 16 to the 24th.
Christmas Eve Tamales
Classic or traditional Tamales are very time consuming to make. They become very easy, however, when you can get a lot of people together to help; and what better time than the Christmas holiday when tons of people are around? This is why Tamales are often made around Christmas eve.
As extended families come into town, often they will gather at abuela’s (grandma’s) to fill, stuff, and steam Tamales. It takes about an hour to steam a batch of tamales, and if a traditional tamale steamer pot is used (larger than a regular steamer), 30-40 tamales can be steamed at once (depending on how big you want to make them). If you’ve got a large family, hundreds are often made!
The Tamales are enjoyed both on Christmas Eve, and included in Christmas day feasting as well. Extra Tamales are taken home by each family and frozen for eating later, like for the traditional Tamale on New Year’s day.
New Year’s Day Tamale tradition
Eating Tamales on New Year’s Day is traditional in Mexico. The deeply golden yellow of the nixtamalized corn in the masa symbolizes golden wealth for the future. Tamales also represent prosperity and family unity, since both are required to make large batches of them. These virtues are very important to the people of Mexico!
Pork filling also represents good luck and the tenacity of the pig to press forward and find (or root out) what it wants.
But the tradition could also stem from the fact that leftover Christmas tamales are easy to reheat and eat and spare us from cooking when we may be feeling a bit hung over from the night before….ahem…..ahem…..
What’s it called when people gather to make tamales?
Fun Fact: A “Tamalada” is a tamale making party, where a large group of friends and family gather to make Tamales!
Another fun fact about Tamale making: the person in charge of the Tamalada is called the “Tamalera” or “Tamalero“. These words can also be used for anyone making Tamales or an entire Tamale factory.
The History of Tamales
Tamales originated as an ancient and sacred central American food prepared each year in honor of the Gods and their creation of life (including humans) from corn. They were so much a part of the indigenous culture, that when Christianity was introduced they were adapted to their new faith: Tamales then represented the virgin Mary, pregnant with the Christ child. Some tamales are even made with an olive in the center as further representation of Jesus in the womb.
Many Latin American foods, especially Mexican, have been changed or “commercialized” by the US over the last 60 years or so. When visiting Mexico, you’ll have a hard time finding the crunchy corn tacos and flour-tortilla-wrapped burritos we enjoy in the United States as “Mexican Food”. However, Tamales for the most part have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, due mainly to the labor intensive process for making them.
How Do You Make Traditional Tamales?
Tamales are made by spreading masa (corn dough) onto a dried corn husk, followed with a strip of filling over the center of the masa. The corn husk is then folded and wrapped around itself, encasing the filling in dough, then folded and sometimes tied to close. Then it is steamed to cook.
Today tamales can be steamed inside softened corn husks, large banana leaves, and even aluminum foil. Historically, Tamales were only steamed with corn husks; banana leaves didn’t exist in the Americas until banana trees were brought over by Portuguese explorers.
Fillings haven’t changed much though since the Spanish arrived. They introduced beef, chicken, and domesticated pig which remain popular to this day. Fillings anciently consisted of beans, vegetables, roasted squash seeds and even squash blossoms. Sometimes the Aztec also filled tamales with cooked game meat (anything from flamingo to frog-o) or fish.
It often takes days to carefully craft each individual ingredient to build the fabulous and complex taste of a homemade tamale. Nixtamalization of dried corn takes a day of soaking, then it is ground up, then mixed with broth and lard to make the masa. Thankfully you can buy MaSeCa, which is commercially made dried masa mixture. The chiles for the chile sauce often need to be rehydrated and blended with spices and broth, then simmered to meld the flavors together. Meat fillings are seasoned and slow cooked to build flavor and tenderize the meat. There is A LOT of work that goes into making a great tamale.
Where to order Tamales?
You can take some shortcuts in our modern age by purchasing ready made masa, chile sauce and even carnitas. Or you can skip all the work and purchase fresh tamales from The Hatch Chile Store!
The Hatch Chile Store sells Tamales year round, along with lots of other fabulous ready-made goodies. They will also DEEPLY discount your order if you purchase one of their Christmas Bundles. I did, and now I have all the traditional Tamales I need to celebrate Christmas and New Years eve.
Why are Hatch Chiles so special?
Hatch Chile is world renown for it’s delicious flavor, due to the unique climate, soil composition, and cultivars that exist only in the Hatch valley of New Mexico. These factors combine to grow exceptional chile peppers with the perfect blend of smoky, sweet and hot flavor notes. More people discover Hatch Chiles each year, and their popularity continues to grow.
Growing up in New Mexico where chile peppers are an integral part of the culture, I know that Hatch chiles have earned a reputation for being the best of the best. I personally only use authentic Hatch in all my cooking because it simply tastes amazing. You should be able to find canned Hatch chile in any supermarket these days, or you can order it directly like I do. Frozen chile is much, much better tasting than canned!
The Hatch Chile Store is the premiere website for ordering your Hatch chile– they are incredibly good at shipping fresh authentic chile right to your door, whatever variety and hotness lever you prefer. It’s where I get all my Hatch Chile, and I must say the flavor really does stand out above any other chile pepper variety.
Head on over now to The Hatch Chile Store to stock up on the most delicious Hatch chile you can buy anywhere- they’ve always got great deals on your favorite products!
Did you know I have a full-color cookbook with lots more easy and delicious New Mexican recipes? You can learn more about it here!Print