Tamales: How Do You Like Yours?


Español: Cabrito con tamales. Piura, Perú.

How do you like your tamales? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Popular in much of the Southwest, tamales have a special place in the holiday celebrations of people throughout Arizona  As the holiday season gets underway, you can find tamale activities of all kinds from classes on how to make them to festivals and fairs celebrating them.  This traditional dish is made by filling corn-based dough with sweet or savory ingredients, wrapping it with a corn husk, and then steaming it.  Once tamales are cooked, they can be unwrapped like a holiday present and eaten for any meal.

Where Did They Come From?

Tamales are believed to have come from the ancient civilizations of the Aztec and Maya and were important to those cultures because they served as an excellent source of portable food for hunters, soldiers, and other travelers.  When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they introduced the use of lard to lighten the dough used in making them.  Throughout Latin America, tamales are as common as sandwiches and come in almost as many varieties.

How are Tamales Made?

Tamales are constructed from three primary parts.  First is the dough, which is generally made with masa, nixtamalized corn dough and lard.  Second is the filling, which can be made with a wide range of ingredients including meats, vegetables, spices, and flavors.  Lastly, is the wrapper which encloses the tamale and allows it to be cooked.  Most tamales are either steamed or boiled and the wrapper is removed prior to eating.

Traditional Mexican tamales are generally made with dough made from nixtamalized corn, a process that softens the corn and makes it more digestible.  Dough can also be made from textured corn flour or bought in a pre-made form.  Many makers of tamales add additional flavors to the dough depending on the type of tamales they are producing. 

Just like a sandwich, tamales can be filled with almost any combination of ingredients imaginable.  The most common fillings are based around either pork or chicken and often include salsa or mole.  Sweet versions are also made as a dessert or a treat which use sweetened masa filled with raisins and other dried fruits.  Tamales are generally cooked in large batches that can be as large as several hundred at once. 

Tamales can be made using a variety of wrapper.  The wrapper is important as it keeps the tamale ingredients together while it is being cooked, but it is discarded before the tamale is eaten.  Dried corn husks are the most common wrapper used in creating traditional tamales.  The primary reasons other types of wrappers are used are flavor enhancement and regional preference.  Other common types of tamale wrappers include fresh corn husks, fresh corn leaves, banana leaves, and chaya leaves.

Where to Find Local Ingredients

Although tamales can be filled with almost anything, there are some common ingredients featured in many traditional recipes.  Here are some local options for finding these common tamale ingredients.



Chili peppers (poblano, jalapeno)





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