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Tamale

[tuh-mah-lee]

A tamale (Spanish tamal, from Nahuatl tamalli), is a traditional indigenous American food consisting of steam-cooked corn dough (masa) with or without a filling. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheese (post-colonial), and sliced chillis or any preparation according to taste. The tamale is generally wrapped in a corn husk or plantain leaves before cooking, depending on the region from which they come.

Their essence is the corn meal dough made from hominy (called masa), or a masa mix such as Maseca, usually filled with sweet or savory filling, wrapped in plant leaves or corn husks, and cooked, usually by steaming, until firm. Tamales were developed as a portable ration for use by war parties in the ancient Americas, and were as ubiquitous and varied as the sandwich is today. The diversity of native languages in the pre-Hispanic America led to a number of local words for the tamal, many of which remain in use.

Tamales in Latin America

Tamales are a favorite dish in Mexico that take several hours to prepare and make. Street vendors can be seen serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras). In some places like Mexico City, the tamale is often placed inside a wheat bread roll to form a torta de tamal, which is substantial enough to keep the breakfaster going until Mexico's traditionally late lunch hour.

The most common filling is pork but chicken is also used, in either red or green salsa or mole. Another very traditional variation is to add sugar to the corn mix and fill it with raisins or other dried fruit and make a sweet tamal (tamal de dulce). Since the cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens if not hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough (and the coarseness of the filling) is a matter of discretion, there are commonly a few "deaf", or filling-less, tamal (tamal sordo), which might be served with refried beans and coffee. Instead of corn husks, banana leaves are used in tropical parts of the country such as the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and the Yucatán Peninsula. These tamales are rather square in shape, often very large— 15 inches (40 cm) or more— and thick; a local name for these in Southern Tamaulipas is zacahuil. To the south, banana-leaf tamales are also common in the neighboring Central American countries. Another less-common variation is to use chard leaves, which can be eaten along with the filling.

To make a full meal, the tamal is often accompanied by atole, hot chocolate, or champurrado. In Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia they are wrapped in plantain leaves, and there are several varieties, including tamal de gallina, tamal pisque, and tamal de elote (in Costa Rica, the name can also be used for a type of corn pastry). They are generally large, similar in size to the tamales of southeastern Mexico.

In Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, in addition to the El Salvador versions, there are tamales without filling which are served as the bread or starch portion of a meal:

  • Tamal de elote (made with yellow corn, sometimes with a sweet taste)
  • Tamalito de chipilín (made with Chipilín, a green leaf)
  • Tamal blanco (simple, made with white corn)

During Christmas holidays, tamales of corn flour are a special treat for Guatemalans. The preparation time of this type of tamal is long, due to the amount of time required to cook down and thicken the flour base.

In Panama, tamales are considered one of the main national dishes. The Panamanian tamal is fairly large. The most common fillings are chicken, raisins, onions, tomato sauce, and sometimes sweet peas. Rarely you see pork versions. Another variation is tamal de olla, which is cooked in a pot and then served directly onto plates. Tamales are usually served for all special occasions, including weddings and birthday parties, and are always found on the Christmas dinner table.

Peruvian tamales tend to be spicy, larger, and are wrapped in banana leaves. Common fillings are chicken or pork, usually accompanied by boiled eggs, olives, peanuts or a piece of chilli pepper mainly in Lima, the capital city. In other cities tamales are smaller and wrapped in corn husks. They differ from the tamales made in Lima in that they use white corn instead of yellow corn as people in Lima do. Another version is called humita. It can be salted or sweet. Sweet ones have raisins, vanilla, oil, sugar. Salty ones can be filled with cheese (queso fresco) or chicken. Humitas are cooked in the oven or in the pachamanca.

Tamales are also found in Colombia, where there are several varieties (including most widely known tolimense as well as boyacense and santandereano). Like other South American varieties, the most common are very large compared to Mexican tamales - about the size of a softball - and the dough softer and wetter, with a bright yellow color. A tamal tolimense is served for breakfast with hot chocolate, and may contain large pieces of cooked carrot or other vegetables, whole corn kernels, rice, chicken on the bone and/or chunks of pork. A related food is the envuelto or bollo, which is cooked in a corn husk, and actually resembles a typical Mexican tamal more closely. Tamales in Santander are often called hayacas, as they are in neighboring Venezuela.

Ecuador has a variety of tamales and humitas, they can be filled with fresh cheese, pork, chicken or raisins. Ecuadorian tamales are usually wrapped in corn husk or achira (aka Canna) leaves. Nacatamales are also tamales. See nacatamal.

The tamal is also a staple in Belize, where it is also known (in English) by the Spanish name bollo.

Tamales are also found in the Dominican Republic. Instead of tamales they are known as pastillitos, not to be confused with the Latino word Pastel, which is Spanish for cake.

Tamales in the United States

The plural is tamales, and this is the form of the word most often seen in the United States, with the singular frequently given as tamale rather than tamal. Tamales have acquired mainstream popularity in the United States. However, the Mexican tamale is the most common version known and consumed in the United States by non-Hispanic Americans. The tamales can be filled with pork or with beef. Another popular filling is corn (partially mashed, like creamed corn). Tamales are popular as Christmas meals in the southwestern states of the United States, where there is a large concentration of Hispanic families. A basic modern southwestern tamale contains a spicy meat filling, usually shredded pork, chicken, or beef and is sometimes served with a red sauce or chili con carne sauce.

The green corn tamale (green, meaning "fresh") is made with fresh white corn, often mixed with cheese, then lined with a long green chile slice before it is rolled and wrapped in a husk. Then the husks are steamed. Although the Arizonans (Tucson), claim to be the originators of this tamale, the base of it remains to be Mexican, and its popularity extends to southern California.

The tamale is a staple food along the Mississippi Delta, locally known as "Tamales calientes". It grew in popularity in the early 1900s when Mexican farmworkers introduced it to black workers in the cotton fields in the deep South. Hot tamales in the Delta are more typically made with corn meal instead of masa. The Mississippi hot tamale features (possibly as sexual innuendo) in the well-known, cryptic song "They're Red Hot" by early Delta blues singer Robert Johnson.

Mississippi tamales are used to make the Chicago area's ubiquitous Mother-in-law sandwich which in its most popular form features a Mississippi tamale nestled in a hot dog bun and smothered with chili. The origins of the sandwich according to Chicago food expert Peter Engler in addition to African-Americans migrating from the Southern United States with "Mexicans, Greeks, Armenians, and Poles.

Tamales have taken on a new direction in recent years as Nuevo Latino and New World chefs such as Rick Bayless bring new diversity to this ancient food.

Tamales in the Caribbean

Another variation of the tamale is the pastelle found on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. It is a Spanish derivative from the days when Trinidad was a colony of Spain and thus it shares many similarities with its Latin American counterparts. Pastelles are wrapped in banana leaves for cooking and have a rectangular shape that is roughly 6″×3″×½″ (15×8×1.2 cm) in dimensions. The shell is made of cornmeal and the filling commonly consists of well-seasoned ground beef or chicken and prunes, raisins, capers, and olives. The result is a rich contrast of sweet, savoury, and salty flavours. It is a staple favorite of the Christmas holiday seasonal foods on the islands, rarely if ever seen during the rest of the year. It is served for breakfast, as a supplement to other meals such as lunch and dinner, or on its own as a simple snack along with other, seasonal favorites such as sorrel (roselle).

In Cuba, before the 1959 Revolution, street vendors sold Mexican-style tamales wrapped in cornhusks, typically made without any kind of hot chile seasoning in order to accommodate the milder Cuban taste. The fact that Cuban tamales are identical in form to those made in Mexico City suggests that they were brought over to Cuba during the period of intense cultural and musical exchange between Cuba and Mexico, between the 1920s and 1950s. A well-known Cuban song from the 1950s, "Los Tamalitos de Olga," (a cha-cha-cha sung by Orquesta Aragón) celebrated the delicious tamales sold by a street vendor in Cienfuegos. A peculiarly Cuban invention is the dish known as tamal en cazuela, basically consisting of tamal masa with the meat stuffing stirred into the masa, then cooked in a pot on the stove to form a kind of hearty cornmeal porridge.

Corn-husk wrapped tamales are also popular in southeastern Cuba.

In Puerto Rico there is the "guanime", or "guanimo" in some areas. It is made with yellow corn meal, coconut milk and a pinch of sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf, and boiled. There is a version with filling called guanimes rellenos. This filling may be ground beef,chicken or pork, resembling the filling of numerous fried items.

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