Tamales: Here's The Travelling Tale of Maize Dough
Image Credit: Tamales | Image Credit: Pexels.com

The more we see the world, the more we eat around the world, the more we are convinced that we are all connected. Take tamales, for example. Maize dough is steamed in a corn husk or a banana leaf; the dough itself can be stuffed with meats, fruits, vegetables, herbs, chillies... all according to your taste, and tada, we have a tamal (which is actually the singular, not ‘tamale’)! Does it not sound very similar to panki? Or patholi? Or suman from the Philippines? Or zongzi from China? Ketupat from Malaysia? We could go on and on... but let’s start with tamales, believed to be among the earliest of all Mesoamerican foods, and among the oldest versions of "dough cooked or steamed in a leaf."

Tamal, derived from the classical Nahuatl tamalli for ‘wrapped’ is simply "a small cake of cornmeal dough that is cooked and served in a corn husk wrapping," which is still what it largely is. Tamales are complete meals in a portable form—perhaps the world’s first "to-go" dish. Most Central and South American countries have their own version of the tamal, with regional color coming in the form of ingredients that may differ from country to country. Guanimes in Puerto Rico, pastelles in Trinidad and Tobago, dukunus in Belize, humitas in the Andes region, hallacas in Venezuela are all versions of tamales.

The exact time of origin of tamales is still a matter of debate, but it is generally accepted that they originated in the region that we now know as Mexico. Some archaeologists who found pictorial evidence of tamales in Guatemala date their origin to about 100 CE, while others place it anywhere between 8000 and 5000 BC, around the same time as corn began to be domesticated in the region. Reports suggest that they have always been savory or sweet and have included such ingredients as flamingos, frogs, turkeys, axolotl, in the past. The Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the older Olmec and Toltec people, used tamales as easily portable food for hunting trips, traveling long distances, and for travelling large distances as well as supporting their armies. 

Corn is a central aspect in the mythology of the Mesoamerican peoples. A Mayan creation myth states that the "first attempt at creating humans was from mud, but they quickly dissolved. The second attempt was made from wood, but it lacked a soul. The third attempt was the successful attempt, and it was from corn. Thus, the Aztec, Maya, Olmecs, and Toltecs all considered themselves to be people of corn. The tamales – a perfect embodiment of corn – too come with their own share of myth and folklore. Tzitzimitl, a terrifying lady, was the grandmother of the god Chicomexóchitl. She decided to sacrifice and cook the first twenty tamales with his meat. Ouch. 

Tamales, considered a food of the gods, played a large part in the rituals and festivals of ancient Mesoamericans. For example, every eight years, the Aztecs celebrated the feast of Atamalcualiztli (the eating of water tamales). During the seven-day celebration, only unseasoned, plain tamales soaked in water could be eaten. The ritual was meant to revitalize the food for the next eight years. The Spanish conquerors appropriated the tamales as an integral part of their own rituals and festivals. Take Semana Santa (Holy Week) for example. It is celebrated in many predominantly Catholic countries in the lead up to Easter, and tamales are a fixture during the week, especially tamales pisques, which are tamales with beans. Bernardino de Sahagun was a 16th century Franciscan friar and missionary priest who traveled extensively in Spain during the conquest, largely evangelizing people but, in the process, also documenting the ways of life of the native people. Often referred to as the "first anthropologist," his notes give us a glimpse of the prevalence of tamales in the region before colonization. In one passage, he describes Aztec street markets, where he mentions a street vendor selling every kind of tamale possible, including gopher, axolotl and rabbit tamales. 

Since the Spanish conquest and plunder of Mexico, the tamales have undergone a little change. It was the Spanish who began to add fat to the corn dough. This advent gave us tamales as they are today. It was also Spanish colonization that led the tamal to find its place in Filipino cuisine, where it’s called a binaki. Ever since their introduction at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, tamales have had several iterations characteristic of the various regional palates of the USA. 

So, the next time you catch yourself humming "They’re Red Hot," an old ragtime classic by Robert Johnson (or versions by Eric Clapton, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Kanye West), know that you’re singing a song about (but not restricted to) tamales and remind yourself of the long and myth-filled history of this central dish of central America.