Making Tamales: A Hispanic Holiday Tradition

Author Amigos | November 15, 2022

Even though tamales have undergone drastic changes, they are still a centerpiece of our cuisine because there is also a heavy community component to getting the dish on the table. There is ritual and community that plays into the process of making tamales that feed an entire group of people using nourishing and humble ingredients carefully filled, wrapped, and cooked. It's truly a dish that notes care and love since it can be a long process to make tamales.

Tamales verdes. Ordering tamales by the distinctive color of the sauce that laces the masa is the norm, with the verde (green) leading the way in popularity. The bright, herbal and spicy mix of tomatillo and green chilies pair up with chicken or pork to create the most popular tamal, whether it comes wrapped in corn or plantain.

Tamales de mole. Some places refer to this type as rojo (red), but there are regions that make a clear distinction between the mole tamal and other red salsa-based styles. Chicken is the most common protein for this one.

Tamales de rajas. Long strips of fiery chilies mixed with some melty cheese make this style a popular item in Central Mexico. Hotness can range from mild to volcanic, depending on the type of chile, so tread carefully.

Tamales de frijol. Pureed beans and cheese fill these tamales, delicious on their own or paired with some type of mole sauce. The states of Puebla and Morelos are good places to get them at their best.

"Tamaladas, communal gatherings created for the making of tamales, went from occurring for the purpose of honoring, for example, The Earth Goddess Tonanztin to celebrating Coatlaxopeuh or La Virgen of Guadalupe. The same goes for other deities, seasons, moon phases, and Indigenous spiritual events that now correspond with mostly Catholic celebrations and holidays as we see in Las Posadas, Christmas Eve, and el Dia de Los Reyes." 

As we all know, tamales take hours of work, even when many people are involved. Preparing the different fillings is one job, making the masa and preparing the husks is another. And once all of that is done, the real work begins. Smearing the masa and fillings, wrapping them up and putting them in the olla in a way that allows them to steam and not spill, then waiting patiently for them to be ready. It brings everyone into the kitchen and makes each bite taste so much better because you know how much work it took to cook each one. This is likely why they continue to be a staple during special times of the year rather than a regular weekly meal because of the amount of work it takes to prepare such an intricate dish.

Whether or not we realize it, we all continue to keep and honor the ancient tamal tradition passed down by our ancestors. If we do, it will continue to keep both our bodies and community connections alive.