A well-made tamale—with fluffy masa (corn dough) surrounding flavorful fillings, all steamed to perfection—is like a present wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. Mexican and other Latin American restaurants in the United States offer up dozens of varieties of tamale, stuffed with all kinds of meats, vegetables, and other fillings.
Of course there's nothing wrong with just eating all the tasty tamales you can get your hands on, but before you order up your next batch, why not learn a little about this fabulous food with ancient roots?
1. Tamales have been around for a loooong time
Tamales originated with pre-Aztec civilizations in Mesoamerica, so they've been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. It's no surprise such a delicious little packet of goodness has stood the test of time. Plus, the portability that made them useful before the days of cars actually makes them perfect takeout food, too.
2. There are many traditional tamale variations from Mexico
There are tons of regional variations on tamales throughout Mexico, so look for them with all sorts of fillings, including meats like turkey, pork, and chicken, seafood, vegetables such as greens, chiles, and mushrooms, as well as beans, cheese, pumpkin seeds, hard-boiled eggs, herbs, raisins, and much more. Wrappers can include corn husks or banana leaves (and sometimes there's no wrapper at all), and while tamales are generally steamed they can also be baked. You'll also find tamales with and without sauce. If you can find Oaxaca's famous tamales with rich mole negro, you must try them! If you're in Seattle, you can order them from La Cocina Oaxaquena.
3. Tamales don't come from just Mexico
While Mexican tamales might be the best known in the United States, there are tamale variations from throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Belize, Perú, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Within each country there are further variations on the tamale, so keep your eyes open for different types to sample—the Colombian-style chicken or pork tamale wrapped in a banana leaf and served with red or green salsa at Empanada Mama in New York City is just one example of hundred of types of tamale to try.
4. Tamales are party food
Partly because they're labor intensive to make, tamales are often served for special occasions, including weddings, holidays, and other celebrations. But if somebody else is making the tamales and delivering them to you, you can order them up as often as you like—no special occasion required!
5. Hot tamales are a thing
Unless you grew up in the Mississippi Delta region you might not know about hot tamales (not the candy), also called Delta tamales. This skinny, spicy take on the tamale is made with ground cornmeal and various meat fillings such as ground beef and is usually smothered in red sauce. Head to Greenville, Mississippi, the "Hot Tamale Capital of the World," for the town's annual tamale festival to sample them yourself or even enter a hot tamale eating contest. Or if you happen to be in New Orleans, order some from Guillory's Deli and Tamales, where you can also get a tamale sandwich with chili and cheese!
6. Tamales are often gluten-free
Because they are made with corn flour and corn doesn't contain gluten, tamales are often gluten-free. Just be sure to double check with the restaurant to confirm.
7. You can—and should—have tamales for dessert
In addition to sampling all the varieties of savory tamales, you should give sweet tamales a whirl too. Try the pineapple and raisin tamales from Lolita's Tamales in Los Angeles and the tamales made with strawberry and raisins or pineapple and coconut from Caramba Tamales in Atlanta. Sweet!