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Tamal Season Is Here and It’s Time To See Which Version You Should Make at Home

Yes, the holidays are practically upon us. I know — it seems faster than ever this year. But let’s be honest, we don’t need any special reason to celebrate the tasty tamal. But with us reaching peak tamal season, it’s worth noting the wide variety of tamales that exist around Latin America. 

With tamales being a staple of Latin American cuisine, it’s no surprise that they all share a few basic components: the masa or dough, a filling (which usually consists of meats, cheeses, fruits, or veggies), and lastly a type of wrapper, often a corn husk or banana leaf. 

Now a quick history lesson. It’s widely accepted that tamales were being cooked up and enjoyed by Indigenous people across Mesoamerica as early as 8,000 BC. Over time, different regions turned to their local ingredients and variations of the tamal began to take shape. 

So, are you ready to unwrap all the different takes on the tamal? Let’s go!

Mexican Tamales

Pretty much no matter where you travel in the U.S., you can find a Mexican tamal within a few miles. I’ve seen them on the menus even in small towns far, far away from the U.S.-Mexico border. They’re iconic and what most people associate with tamales.

The Mexican version is made from a dough of masa (ground maize), lime, and fat (typically lard) and filled with meats that have been marinated with mole or salsa. But there are a wide variety of filling options — everything from huitlacoche and tinga de pollo to sweet guava and even chocolate. Then all that filling and dough gets wrapped up in a corn husk, tied with a string and steamed.

Guatemalan Tamales

Now let’s continue further south across the border to Guatemala, where tamales are traditionally wrapped with plantain leaves instead of corn husks. The fillings are also quite different in Guatemala with chicken and pork remaining the most popular options. But veggie options abound, including those filled with bell peppers, olives, capers, mushrooms and raisins.

The tamales are placed in a steamer, covered with additional banana leaves and steamed until cooked.

Cuban Tamales

A quick side trip to the Caribbean for Cuba’s tamales, which are a lot smaller than the Mexican variety but come packed full of flavor. These tamales are also made with a corn masa, then filled with small pieces of pork, garlic, tomato paste and other ingredients you might have on hand. What makes them a bit special is that the pork is typically mixed in with the masa instead of being added as a filling.

Extra bonus: Cubans also make a dish called tamal en cazuela, which is a lot like a tamal casserole and is everything!

Nicaraguan Tamales

Back to Central America, Nicaragua to be exact, where tamales are traditionally called nacatamales. Similar to Mexican tamales, they’re made up of corn masa and lard but usually have achiote (a red spice mixture) added to the dough. Nacatamales come filled with tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, achiote-seasoned pork, olives, onions, chile, and even spearmint. This is all wrapped up in plantain leaves and steamed until done.

Costa Rican Tamales

In Costa Rica, tamales during the holiday season often reflect the most widely-available ingredients, so they’ll come filled with rice, peas, potatoes, among other ingredients, and are also wrapped up in a plantain leaf.

Unlike some of the countries on this list, Costa Ricans like their tamales spicy and traditionally eat them with a sweet and spicy sauce called Salsa Lizano.

Colombian Tamales

Ask a Colombian where the best tamales are and they’ll say their hometown. But, according to many, the best Colombian tamales come from the Tolíma department, just east of Bogotá — a region well-known for their rice plantations. These tamales are much larger than the Mexican varieties and come wrapped in leaves rather than corn husks. I, for one, love that they also come filled with carrots and potatoes — along with chicken or pork.

Venezuelan Tamales

Venezuelans took tamales to the next level — they even call them something entirely different — hallacas. They’re much larger than most other types of tamales and are a very typical Christmas dish. The dough is made from ground maize mixed with achiote cooked in pork fat and chicken broth, so you know they’re packed full of flavor. They’re typically filled with a variety of guisados, including beef, pork, bacon, onions, raisins and spices. 

They’re unique in that the filling is added raw (rather than precooked) and cooks along with the masa, while wrapped in plantain leaves, and are boiled instead of steamed.

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