What are Tamales?

What are Tamales?

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish that go way back into Mexican history. They are made from a cornmeal dough that is filled with either chicken, pork, beef, beans or vegetables (and obviously a variety of spices!) and then wrapped up in corn husks or plantain leaves and cooked in a steamer. They are often referred to by Mexican food fans as ‘wrapped up parcels of sheer yumminess’!

The word ‘tamale’ is derived from the Aztec language ‘Nahuatl’ and literally just means ‘wrapped food’. They are a portable meal, complete in themselves, making them perfect to make in large quantities and pack up for travel. For this very reason they were widely used by hunters and warriors, thousands and thousands of years ago during the pre-historic Mesoamerican period (pre Spanish conquest of Mexico and Central America). In fact there is evidence that tamales existed up to 10,000 years ago!

During the times of the Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs and Tolecs different tamales were said to me made as an offering for the Gods. Today however they more often saved for special occasions and Mexican holiday celebrations, such as; Day of the Dead, Christmas and New Year. Along with the offerings on the Alter during the Mexican celebration Day of the Dead a variety of sweet and savory tamales will be prepared and often enjoyed along with a delicious mug of Champurrado (a traditional Mexican hot beverage made with corn, masa, chocolate and cinnamon) that I strongly suggest you try either making from scratch or buying Champurrado Instant Mix!).

Since there is so much preparation involved in making real authentic tamales (some say there are up to 120 steps involved, many of which are from one day to the next) it is common for the whole family, no matter how old or young, to come together to help out in the kitchen. The fillings and masa (dough) are usually made the day before any big celebration and the next morning all of the abuelitos, abuelitas, uncles, aunts and little kids literally line up and form an Assembly line to make the tamales. First lay out the corn husks, spreading out the masa onto them, adding some fillings and folding them up.

Secrets to Making Authentic Mexican Tamales

So, what is the secret to the most authentic Mexican Tamales recipe? Simple… it’s all in the masa ;-)

The kind of flour you use it essential to creating the most authentic tasting tamales. You need to use masa harina. This is a corn dough flour that is made from dried corn kernels, just like cornmeal and corn flour but the difference is that the corn kernels for masa harina are cooked and soaked in a lime solution before they are dried and grounded. Lime water is the common name for Ca(OH)2 (calcium hydroxide) and this little trick is what gives the dough it's slightly more sour taste and more distinctive flavor. Traditionally the corn is ground by hand but you can now buy ready made masa harina in the supermarket.

Another little trick is using lard for the masa instead of butter or oil. Lard is definitely not for vegetarians as it is 100% pork fat. This may sound extremely unhealthy but in actual fact it is a more natural and unprocessed form of fat that is extremely rich in B vitamins and minerals. Lard has less saturated fats than butter and more monosaturated fat. This is one of the healthy fats that is good for your heart!

Last of all I would suggest seasoning your dough. You can use garlic powder, cumin, onion powder, chile powder, etc. This will give a little extra flavor to your tamales and avoid them tasting bland. Plus, if you can use a homemade chicken stock made from boiling up the carcass of a cooked chicken along with a good selection of vegetables the better. For my homemade stocks I always use lots of celery, carrots, potato, onion, leek, garlic, ginger, sprigs of herbs from the garden like rosemary, parsley and thyme, salt and pepper and a tad of any vegetables I have to hand.

Anyway, that’s enough of the theory, let's get down to practice!!!

The Most Authentic Mexican Tamales Recipe

The 5 steps to making your tamales are:

  • Soak the corn husks
  • Make your fillings
  • Make the Masa
  • Assemble the tamales
  • Cook them in a Steamer Pot
    • Soak the corn husks.

Put all the husks in a large bowl and cover them with hot water until they are soft. This should take about 30-60 minutes, or alternatively leave them to soak overnight and then put them in a colander the next day to dry out and get rid of any excess water.


Soak Corn Husks Wholesale - Mexmax INC
    • Make you Fillings

There are hundreds of delicious fillings to choose from for your tamales. You can use beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, beans, cheese, etc. Here is a recipe for an authentic tasting tamale with pork and chili sauce.

Pork and Chile Sauce filling for Tamales

Ingredients for the Pork

500g pork loin 1 onion 1 bay leaf 2 cloves of garlic 1 tsp cumin 1 tsp chile 1 tsp oregano salt and pepper to taste


      • Cook the pork with all the seasonings in a slow cooker for 8h on a low setting. This can also be done overnight
      • Strain off the juices and save them for the stock
      • Shred the pork

Ingredients for the Chile Sauce

4 dried chiles 2 cups of the pork broth (saved from before!) 1 tsp oregano 1 tsp cumin 1 tsp chile 1 tsp onion powder 2 cloves of garlic 1 tbsp oil 1 tbsp flour pinch of salt


      • Remove the seeds from the chiles and simmer them for 15-20m in the pork broth
      • Use a blender to blend the broth with all the herbs and spices until smooth and allow it to cool
      • Heat the oil in the same saucepan you used to cook the chiles. Add the flour and stir for 1 minute
      • Strain the broth and slowly stir it into the saucepan with the oil. Cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring constantly
      • Add salt to taste and then add the sauce to the pork
    • Make the Masa


500g masa harina ½ cup of lard 1 cup of chicken stock ½ tsp baking powder Salt to taste

      • Beat the lard with an electric mixer on a high speed until it is nice and fluffy. This can take up to 15 minutes.
      • Mix together the masa harina, baking powder, salt and seasoning in a different bowl and stir them slowly into the lard mixture, continuing to use the electric mixer to ensure it mixes together well.
      • Pour the stock in little by little and continue to mix constantly.
      • You can check whether your masa is ready with a quick and simple test. Roll a little bit of masa into a small ball and put it into a glass full of water. If it floats it is ready but if it sinks continue to beat the masa. Repeat the test until it’s ready!
      • Cover the bowl with the masa with a damp tea towel to avoid it getting dry.
Wholesale Masa Making: Easy Steps - Mexmax INC
    • Assemble the Tamales
      • Lay the corn husks out on the table with the shiny side up and the longest sides of the rectangle shape at the top and bottom
      • Put ¼ cup of dough on each of the husks and spread the dough out with the round edge of a spoon. Make sure to leave space around the edges and at least 5cm free of masa from the bottom edge up
      • Add 2 spoonfuls of filling onto each one
      • Wrap the tamale as if folding a brochure; first fold one side in towards the middle and then the other side over the top of that one so that they overlap. Then fold the bottom edge up and you can tie the tamale up with a strand of husk
Assembling Tamales Made Easy - Mexmax INC Wholesale
  • Steam the Tamales
    • Add water to the bottom of your steamer
    • Place the tamales standing upright inside the steamer (the open end is at the top)
    • Cover the pot and bring the water to the boil
    • Once boiling simmer for about 40 minutes

The tamales are done when they peel away from the husks. If they stick to the husks, cook them for another 5-10 minutes.


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