“Unwrapping Tamales”: How to eat Tamales 101
“Aw, you’re a twig, mijo. Have some more.”
“I asked if you would like more tamales.”
“That’s what I thought you said!”
Remember this funny scene from the Pixar movie Coco where Miguel was forced to eat more tamales to appease his Abuelita? The movie not only left us crying at the end part but also curious about the culture of Mexico especially their mouth-watering tamales which appeared in the movie and are everyone’s favorite.
Tamales are easy to find. You can find them in streets, restaurants, food trucks, night markets, and bakeries. You probably even have one right now in front of you. But before you unwrap that tamale, wait, do you even know how to unwrap it? Did you know that tamale is a traditional food and there’s a proper way of eating it? You might want to continue reading before you dig into what’s on your plate right now so you get the most out of your tamale.
What are tamales?
Before you pull that string of corn husk tied around your tamale you might want to know the story that lies behind the food you are about to put into your mouth. Why does everyone seem so obsessed with this Mexican food? What’s hidden inside that corn husk that leaves people craving for more?
Tamales are basically steamed bundles of masa (a corn-based dough) and a savory filling wrapped beautifully in a corn husk. There are lots of fillings to choose from. The fillings may contain beef, chicken, pork, cheese, chilis, herbs, vegetables, or even fish. The typical tamale is square in shape and small enough to fit your hand. They are yellow in color because the white corn husk turns yellow when steamed. They are served hot with spicy salsa on top. Their cost ranges from $1 to $3 per piece. Tamales are comfort food for some and are always present on the table during holidays.
How tamales are made
Tamales require so much effort, time, and energy to make. No wonder they taste so good. From the soaking of corn husks to making the filling and steaming the tamales each step takes lots of time. Some families, especially extended ones, make cooking tamales a family tradition where every member of the family plays their own part in the cooking process. In Mexico, they have what they call ‘tamalada’ which is a tamal-making party where families and friends gather around the table to assemble tamales.
Tamales consist of three main parts which are the corn husks, the masa, and the fillings. Every part undergoes preparation before you can assemble the tamales.
1. Corn Husks
You first have to wash the corn husks and soak them in water for 30 minutes so they become flexible enough to use as a wrapper for the tamale. Corn husks are available in grocery stores or you can order them online.
The filling is the main part of the tamale. If tamale is a story then its filling would be its climax. It’s the highlight of the tamale because the filling would give flavor to it. Some opt for a salsa verde chicken, or bean and cheese, or red chili pork for the filling.
The masa is a dough made from corn. Masa flour, baking powder, salt, and meat broth are combined to create the perfect dough for the tamale which is lightly sticky and creamy. The first step is to mix the masa dough with the broth in a large mixing bowl and allow it to sit for 20 minutes before beating it with an electric mixer to form a dough. After that, sprinkle the dough with salt, onion powder, chili powder, and cumin. Whip the lard with an electric mixer in a separate bowl and add it to the dough. Beat the dough until you reach that consistency same with peanut butter.
After preparing these three ingredients, assembling the tamales is next which is the most fun part of the cooking process. This is where you can hear stories and laughter among family members as they chat with each other while assembling the tamales. Assembling mainly includes spreading the masa dough in the corn husk and putting the filling on top of it. Fold the left side of the corn husk over the filling and do the same with the right side overlapping the left side that is rolled, then fold the bottom up. The tamale can be secured with a corn husk string to tie it. Arranged the tamales vertically, facing up inside the steamer so its content won’t spill. Then start steaming the tamales to cook them.
Make your own tamales
You can make tamales at home. Yes, you’ve read that right! If you want to experience making the tamale yourself or you want to make your own version of tamales with your own recipe then feel free to do so. There are lots of recipes available online to guide you. Suit yourself and find one that fits your diet. Recreate tamales and you never know this might be the type of business you are meant for.
Tamales around the world
As tamales conquer the world, their taste, appearance, and color change to adapt to the culture of the country it has reached.
Tamales are common in Latin America. So far we’ve talked about Mexican tamales but did you know there are several variations of tamales? Even the Philippines has its own version of tamale.
1. Colombian Tamale
The dough of this tamale has rice, chickpeas, hard-boiled egg, carrot, beef, pork, and chicken and is wrapped using a plantain leaf.
2. Filipino Tamale
Rice, coconut milk, chicken, boiled eggs, and sausages are cooked with rice flour and coconut milk to make tamales in the Philippines. They are then wrapped using a banana leaf and are cooked by steaming them.
3. Hallacas of Venezuela
Tamales in Venezuela are different in the sense that the filling, which is a stew made with beef, pork, bacon, onions, raisins, and spices, is raw and the tamales are boiled to cook them.
4. Tamales Colorados of Guatemala
The tamales in Guatemala are red in color because of the achiote in the filling and are much larger in size.
5. Humintas of Bolivia
Bolivian tamales are different from other tamales because they have no fillings. The dough is seasoned with basil, onions, and spices instead. It can be dipped either in tomato sauce or chili sauce.
Different tamales you can have
Traditional Mexican tamales are the most common tamale you can find around but with people’s creativity, you can find one that can especially suit your taste. Ask the vendor if they offer tamales other than the original ones.
1. Bean and cheese tamale is an option if you don’t want meat in your tamale.
2. Spinach and cheese tamale is another healthier option.
3. International tamales wrapped in banana leaves are much bigger in size and contains more fillings including vegetables.
4. You can ask for some sweet tamales if you’re not a fan of spicy foods. The masa in sweet tamales is mixed with raisins and is sprinkled with cinnamon and chocolate chips.
How to eat tamales?
That’s enough information for you. Let’s now dive in on how you unwrap your tamale and the different ways on how to serve them.
a. Unwrapping the tamale
You only eat what’s on the inside of the tamales and not the corn husk, the banana leaf, or the plantain leaf wrapped around it because corn husks when swallowed can cause choking or stomachache. Remember to remove the wrapper gently and only the steamed cake of masa that is inside of it is to be eaten. You can simply peel back one end of the leaf to remove the wrapper. You can throw the leaf right after unwrapping the tamale and put the dough on a plate to serve it on the table. There are tamales that are tied with corn husk strings to secure the dough inside. To unwrap you must pull this string first.
b. How to eat tamales
After putting the dough on the plate you can eat them using your bare hands but remember to wash your hands first before touching the tamale. Some don’t prefer eating it this way because it tends to get messy especially if you’re feeding your children with it. Use a knife to cut the tamale and use the fork to bring it to your mouth. Others don’t even use plates anymore. They just unwrap the tamale, get a knife and a fork and start eating the tamale with the corn husk as the plate.
c. How to get the most out of your tamale
You can eat the tamale as it is without any sauce or toppings. This is how they usually do it. Plain tamales are flavorful already because of the fillings inside the dough.
1. Serve them with some salsa
Others find plain tamales boring so they look for something to upgrade them and add more flavor to the tamale. Every Mexican food is served with a salsa sauce and tamales taste best with salsa. Salsa is a sauce made from chopped onions, tomatoes, and peppers. It’s basically spicy sauce which is commonly served with Mexican food.
2. Pair them with some beverage
Traditionally, tamales are served with a mug of atole. Tamales go best with a hot mug of atole. Atole is a corn-and-masa-based beverage. Some Mexicans eat tamales with a hot champurrado as a drink, especially during cold days. You can also have some cold beer as a drink after munching on your tamale. Hot chocolate is an option as well. You can also have wine and margarita as drinks.
3. Partner it with an Arroz con Leche
Arroz con Leche is another Mexican traditional food and is commonly known as rice pudding.
Although tamales are commonly eaten with salsa on top there are other options as well if you can’t have salsa. There are lots of toppings to choose from. If you want to serve the tamales to your whole family you might want to consider having a platter filled with toppings to put on the tamales. Pico de gallo, guacamole, queso, pickled jalapeños, sour cream, marinated onions, chilies, limes, cilantro, eggs, cayenne powder are just some of the toppings you can include in your platter. It’s the most fun way you could enjoy your tamales.
Tamales are partnered usually with traditional Mexican food also like the Arroz con Leche but there are always alternatives. Cilantro rice or just simply rice, black bean soup, a bowl of fresh fruit including watermelons, oranges and mangoes, jicama slaw, Mexican cornbread, corn chowder, Mexican crema, chilled avocado soup, Mexican street corn, and Mexican wedding cookies are some side dishes you can partner your tamale with.
If your tamale just comes out of the fridge you might want to reheat them before digging in. You can steam them again using a steamer basket under a pot of boiling water. Or you can just throw them in the oven or microwave. You can also fry them for some crispy tamale.
Tamales are traditional food and are usually served during holidays. They taste best when eaten with your families especially after your family worked hard on cooking the tamales, savoring the fruit of your labor.
Healthy benefits from eating tamales
Tamales are made with several ingredients that can give you lots of nutrients healthy for your body. Eating tamales is not only a tradition but is also a healthy lifestyle. Calories, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals like calcium, zinc, potassium, and iron are what you get from eating tamales. Since tamales contain spicy peppers, the capsaicin in them supports vascular and metabolic health. But remember not to eat too much because too much of something is always harmful.
We don’t want to make the food wait any longer! If you’ve already prepared the salsa, your chosen toppings, and sides, then you may start unwrapping the tamale and have a taste of Mexican culture. Enjoy!