The Incredible, Edible Tamale

Would it surprise you to learn that tamales have been enjoyed for more than 9,000 years?  It’s true!  Tamales became a staple among the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures of thousands of years ago.  The Aztecs called them tamalii and the Mayans referred to them as utah.  No matter how it is pronounced, the meaning equates to ‘wrapped food’; and boy, are they yummy! 

It wasn’t until the mid-1500’s that tamales began to emerge into the European cultures, more specifically, Spain.  The concept of the tamale made its way to this island country in the 16th Century after Spanish explorers were introduced to this interesting food item by indigenous South Americans. It took several hundred more years, however, before mainland Europeans became familiar with this most interesting food item.  Interestingly, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th Century that tamales were finally introduced to Americans.

Tamales are a complete meal, in and of themselves, not to mention that they are portable which adds to the popularity of this type of food.  In fact, their portability was crucial for ancient Mayan, Incan and Aztec peoples during times of war when mobility, or lack of it, meant victory or defeat.   Tamales were wrapped and ready to travel whenever necessary.

What Goes Into Tamales?

Since early civilizations used tamales during on-the-run warring times and during periods when one just plain ate what they could find, ingredients such as tadpoles, frogs, berries, seeds, or ants were used as delectable fillers—yummy!   Fortunately, the food items chosen for tamales of today are a bit more refined.  Beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, cheeses, scrambled eggs and chilies can serve as main ingredients; and many times the ready-to-eat tamales are covered with sauces or salsas for added zip and zest.

Tamales can, also, be used as a dessert item where raisins, fruits such as apples, pineapples and strawberries, and nuts are a source of sweet delights; and the tops of the tamales can be drizzled with warmed chocolate, melted butter and cinnamon, pudding, whipped cream or other sweet additions to complement the flavor of the filling.  A few varieties of dessert tamales include:

** Chocolate tamales with pecans

** Sugar and spice fruit tamales

** Coconut tamales

** Pineapple, pecan and coconut-rum tamales

** Chocolate and peanut-butter tamales with canela crema

** Sweet-spiced pumpkin tamales

Needless to say, the list could go on and on!

Vegetarian and vegan tamales are very popular, as well; and the only barrier to limiting the types of handmade tamales one can create, would be one’s imagination.

Dream Tamales:

Dream tamales could be considered anyone’s version of what one wishes to dream up regarding what one might believe the absolute perfect tamale to be!   A family-owned restaurant in San Diego, California concocted a tamale recipe that included Spanish chorizo, roasted chicken, shrimp, peas, red peppers and rice all generously wrapped in a saffron-flavored masa.  It became such a hit with local patrons that it is now a main-stay on the restaurant’s menu where long-time residents and tourists, alike, can’t seem to get enough of this savory sensation. 

Wrapping It Up:

Tamales, such as those offered by Mother Shucker’s Tamales, are usually wrapped in dried corn husks which have been soaked in water– this allows the husks to soften and become pliable.  Banana leaves are used as a wrapping, also, but either way, the wrapper, not to be eaten, serves a dual purpose.   Aside from a simple covering, the husk or leaf-coverings infuse extra flavors into the tamales when they are steamed.

Tamales are a perfectly-complete meal in portable form.  Flavors and fillings run the gamut of possibilities and virtually no matter where you live in the world, you can enjoy these delectable, hand-held delights!  I’m heading for Maine for a vacation with my family; and a little tamale restaurant, Pier-Side, sits just off one of my favorite wharves.   And what’s my favorite tamale from this little seaside eatery??   How about lobster/seafood tamales with a delicately-seasoned, creamy garlic/butter sauce—I can taste them already!