The concept of the tamale dates as far back as the ancient Aztec People and other Pre-Columbian civilizations as early as 7000 BC. The original name, tamalii, was the wordage used by the Aztec civilization; and the Maya people called their version of tamale utah. ‘Tamale’ literally means ‘wrapped food’.
Tamales were introduced to Spaniards by native South Americans in the mid 1500’s; and at that time, tamales were wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, fabric, paper or bark before they were steamed, grilled, roasted, boiled or fried—not so unlike the methods still used today in various parts of the world.
How Did The Tamale Become So Popular?
Interestingly, when warring between the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas became commonplace, there emerged a need for a type of food that could be filling as well as portable—hence, the tamale became a staple. Some tribal women were chosen to accompany their men in battle in order to prepare the tamales as a convenient food source that could be made ahead of time, packed and warmed—or, eaten cold, if on the run. At times, tamales were filled with whatever was available including tadpoles, honey, frogs, bees, gophers, ants, seeds, berries and nuts.
The convenience and versatility of the tamale became known throughout native cultures in South and Central America and its popularity spread to other cultures, in the process.
The Tamale Today:
The tamales of today may not be as ‘colorful’ as those that were enjoyed thousands of years ago, but the immense popularity of tamales has never ceased. Today, when tamales are made, hundreds are prepared at a time since fixing the meats, sauces and masa, combined with the assembling and wrapping of the tamales before heating can be an all-day process. In many cases, the meat must simmer for hours to achieve the correct tenderness. It is said: ‘Tamales are made for an occasion; and an occasion is made of making them.’ Tamales can, also, be enjoyed as a type of dessert when fillings include cinnamon, raisins and fruit. Fortunately, tamales freeze well to be used for future meals.
Ingredients of tamales, today, are not as ‘wild’ as their ancestral counterparts! Present-day ingredients are a bit milder and include beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, cheese and/or chilies. However, in Mexico, alone, there exist about 1,000 different varieties of tamales; and a Mexican tamale, called the zacahuil, boasts of being three feet long,weighing in at 150 pounds.
Tamales made their way into America at the turn of the twentieth century when African Americans worked alongside Mexican migrant workers in the cotton fields. The African Americans learned the craft of creating these delicious concoctions; and tamales eventually became a popular American dish labeled as ‘Red Hots’ on the streets of New York and Chicago.
Does The Tamale Go By Other Names?
Yes, tamales do go by different names, depending on the geographic region and culture. A few of these names include the following:
- Nicaragua: Nacatamal
- Guatemala: Paches and Chuchitos
- Bolivia and Ecuador: Humita
- Veracruz, Mexico: Zacahull
- Venezuela: Hallaca
Whatever term one might use to reference a ‘ tamale’, it can’t be argued that the tamale has survived thousands of years of history and has evolved into a delicious food creation that is savored all over the world!
Miss Carlson writes a lot about many subjects from her home in the midwest. One of the topics she writes about is handmade tamales.