What is a Tamale? A Mexican Chef Breaks It Down
What is a tamale? At its most basic, a tamale is a steamed bundle of masa and a tasty filling, all wrapped in a corn husk. Tamales used to be easier to find, at least in many Chicago neighborhoods, according to chef Jorge Miranda. "When I came to the US in 1991, there were tamales all over the place. You'd just go outside your apartment and there was someone selling them," he told us in 2014. Now, these tamale street vendors are much fewer and farther between.
So it's not surprising if you're not as familiar with tamales as, say, burritos. To give you a crash course, we asked Jorge to break down the components of this favorite staple of Mexican restaurants.
What is a tamale?
A basic tamale can be broken down into three components:
- Masa: Masa, a key ingredient in Mexican cooking, is a dough made from ground corn that has been treated with water and lime. Like many chefs, Jorge moistens his masa with a fat, such as lard or vegetable shortening, before pouring it onto the tamale wrapper. Per Jorge, each tamale should be about 60% masa, 40% filling.
- Filling: A tamale is still a tamale, even if the chef stops at the masa. Typically, though, the masa is filled with pork or chicken marinated in mole or salsa. It may also be filled with veggies, beans, and/or cheese.
- Wrapper: Corn husks are wrapped tightly around the masa and filling, making for a wrapper that keeps its contents intact.
How Tamales are Made
As they are time-intensive labors of love, Mexican tamales are traditionally crafted at home, often with extended family gathering in the kitchen to form a hot tamale assembly line, with each station taking over one of these steps:
- Washing, then soaking the corn husks for flexibility
- Coating the inside of the husk with masa
- Coating that layer of masa with the filling
- Rolling the husk tightly into a cylinder, and folding, much like a big egg roll
Once the tamale is wrapped, it's ready to be steamed. The wrapper, while inedible, acts as a biodegradable packaging that makes it super-portable. Street vendors often keep tamales warm in coolers; in Chicago, you can still spy these vendors on street corners in some neighborhoods.
How to Eat Tamales
To the inexperienced eye, a tamale can look unwieldy, perhaps intimidating. Part of the magic, though, is the ritual of unwrapping the tamale and watching the steam rise. Here's how to dig in:
- Unwrap it by hand, carefully, so you don't burn yourself.
- Discard the wrapper.
- Top it with salsa.
- Eat it with a fork or your fingers (if you dare).
Are there other types of tamales?
Yes, many regional variations abound. They're made for big gatherings, celebrations, festivals.
- In the southern Mexican state of Michoacán, where one of Jorge's grandmothers was from, tamales are wrapped in agave leaves (yes, the same plant used to make tequila), imparting the masa with a minty, anise-like taste.
- In Oaxaca, they use banana or plantain leaves, which give tamales an earthy, herbal flavor.
- Tamales nejos have no filling, just pure corn masa, and are often served with a side of beans and a cup of coffee.
- Dessert tamales are also a thing! For these, the masa is sweetened, often with sugar, and filled with fruit.
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