Tamales are a unique South American dish, created by the native populations and adopted by the European immigrants. Tamales are a complete meal in a very portable form: a mixture of corn dough (masa) and filling is wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk and then steamed. The corn masa becomes firmer when steamed, and the tamale can be unwrapped and eaten on the go.
The earliest tamales were simple - made with beans and squash and roasted over a fire.
The Europeans brought chicken, pork, olives, raisins, and other foods with them to the new world, and tamales become more elaborate.
Tamales have many names and variations in different parts of South America. Venezuelans enjoy hallacas, especially at Christmas. In the Andes, humitas are made with ground fresh corn, rather then the usual masa harina (or masarepa in some places), which are forms of dried cornmeal.
The masa, or cornmeal dough, inside a tamale is prepared by mixing dried cornmeal with a broth (usually left from cooking the meat in the filling), lard, and seasonings until it formas a soft dough. Masa harina is the most common cornmeal used to make tamales (and also used to make tortillas). Masa harina is made from ground corn that has been treated with lime to remove the skin and hulls, made into a dough, then dried and ground into a fine meal. Masa harina has a distinctive flavor, not unlike hominy, as it is prepared with a similar process.
The lard keeps the masa from becoming too dry and pasty.
The fillings range from simple to elaborate. In some countries, the masa is filled with a simple piece of chicken or pork. Most tamales have elaborate slow-cooked seasoned meat fillings (usually chicken and/or pork), sometimes with vegetables (potatoes, corn, carrots) as well dried fruits and olives.
Many families have a cherished tamale filling recipe, prepared by grandmothers and passed down through the generations.
Wrapping and Steaming Tamales
Tamales are most often wrapped in dried corn husks (soaked in water to make them pliable) or banana leaves. The wrapper is not eaten but imparts a certain flavor to the tamales when they are steamed. Tamales are steamed for about 30 minutes, depending on their size, or until the masa becomes firm and the filling is heated through.
Tamale Recipes and Information:
Traditional Pork Tamales
Easy Cheese Tamales
Garden Vegetable Tamales
Homemade Masa for Tamales
Fresh Corn Humitas, Step-by-Step
Sweet Potato Tamales with Bacon and Onions
Tamale Pie - Pastel de Tamal
How to Make and Authentic Mexican Tamale
Pulled Pork Tamales, Step-by-Step
A Guide to Corn - From Hominy to Masa Harina