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Tamales on a plate.
A tamale (Spanish tamal, from Nahuatl tamalli) is a traditional Mexican dish of Mesoamerican origin, namely from the Aztec empire, which was soon widespread by Spanish conquistadores throughout their other colonies of what is now Latin America, consisting of steam-cooked corn dough (masa) with or without a filling. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheese (post-colonial), and sliced chilis or any preparation according to taste. Tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain (post-colonial) leaves before cooking, depending on the region from which they come.

Tamales have been shown to originate in Mesoamerica as early as 5000 to 8000 BC. They owe their existence to the process of Nixtamalization. Aztec and Maya civilizations as well as the Olmeca and Tolteneca before them used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers. There have also been reports of tamale use in the Inca Empire long before the Spanishmarker visited the new world.

Their essence is the corn meal dough made from hominy (called masa), or a masa mix such as Masecamarker, usually filled with sweet or savory filling, wrapped in plant leaves or corn husks, and cooked, usually by steaming, until firm. Tamales were one of the staples found by the Spanishmarker when they first arrived in Mexicomarker. Tamales are said to have been as ubiquitous and varied as the sandwich is today. The diversity of native languages in the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica led to a number of local words for the tamal, many of which remain in use.

Tamales in Mexico

Considered by Mexicansmarker one of their most beloved traditional foods, few countries have such an extensive variety of tamales as Mexicomarker. Almost every region and state in the country has its own kind of tamale. It is said that there are between 500 and 1000 different types of tamales all around the country. Some experts estimate the annual consumption in hundreds of millions every year.

Tamales are a favorite breakfast/dinner comfort food in Mexicomarker that take several hours to prepare and make. Tamales are also eaten as dinner, and are often accompanied by hot Atole or Champurrado, maize-based beverages of Aztec origin that are mixed with pecan nuts, chocolate or vanilla, all of these common flavorings in Prehispanic Mexico. Street vendors can be seen in every corner serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras). In some places like Mexico Citymarker, the tamale is often placed inside a wheat bread roll to form a torta de tamal, which is substantial enough to keep the breakfaster going until Mexico's traditionally late lunch hour, which is the largest meal of the day.

The versatile nature of Tamales allows them to be prepared in more sophisticated ways, giving way for a new kind of Tamale, as in Nueva Cocina Mexicana culinary trend among Mexican upscale chefs.

The most common fillings are pork and chicken, in either red or green salsa or mole. Another very traditional variation is to add pink colored sugar to the corn mix and fill it with raisins or other dried fruit and make a sweet tamal (tamal de dulce). Since the cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens if not hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough (and the coarseness of the filling) is a matter of discretion, there are commonly a few "deaf", or filling-less, tamal (tamal sordo), which might be served with refried beans and coffee.

Instead of corn husks, banana leaves are used in tropical parts of the country such as the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, Oaxacamarker, Chiapasmarker, Veracruzmarker, and the Yucatán Peninsulamarker. These tamales are rather square in shape, often very large— 15 inches (40 cm) or more— and thick; a local name for these in Southern Tamaulipasmarker is Zacahuil. To the south, banana-leaf tamales are also common in the neighboring Central American countries. Another less-common variation is to use chard leaves, which can be eaten along with the filling.

Tamales became one of the representatives of Mexican culinary tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture that the Spanish conquistadores took back to Spainmarker as proof of civilization, according to Fray Juan de Zumarraga.Today, tamales are mainly consumed as comfort food in Mexico and is also eaten during festivities, such as the Day of the Dead, Posadas and Mexican Independence Day.

Tamales in other countries of Latin America

In Cubamarker, before the 1959 Revolution, street vendors sold Mexican-style tamales wrapped in corn husks, typically made without any kind of hot chilemarker seasoning in order to accommodate the milder Cuban taste. The fact that Cuban tamales are identical in form to those made in Mexico Citymarker suggests that they were brought over to Cuba during the period of intense cultural and musical exchange between Cuba and Mexico, between the 1920s and 1950s. A well-known Cuban song from the 1950s, "Los Tamalitos de Olga," (a cha-cha-cha sung by Orquesta Aragón) celebrated the delicious tamales sold by a street vendor in Cienfuegos. A peculiarly Cuban invention is the dish known as tamal en cazuela, basically consisting of tamal masa with the meat stuffing stirred into the masa, then cooked in a pot on the stove to form a kind of hearty cornmeal porridge.

Corn-husk wrapped tamales are also popular in southeastern Cubamarker.

In Belizemarker, El Salvadormarker, Guatemalamarker, Costa Ricamarker, Hondurasmarker, Nicaraguamarker, Colombiamarker, and Panamamarker they are wrapped in plantain leaves, and there are several varieties, including tamal de gallina, tamal pisque, and tamal de elote (in Costa Rica, the name can also be used for a type of corn pastry).In Guatemalamarker, Belizemarker and Hondurasmarker, in addition to the El Salvador versions, there are tamales without filling which are served as the bread or starch portion of a meal:
  • Tamal de elote (made with yellow corn, sometimes with a sweet or dry taste)
  • Tamalito de chipilín (made with Chipilín, a green leaf)
  • Tamal blanco (simple, made with white corn)

During Christmas holidays, tamales of corn flour are a special treat for Guatemalans. The preparation time of this type of tamal is long, due to the amount of time required to cook down and thicken the flour base.

In Panamamarker, tamales are considered one of the main national dishes. The Panamanian tamal is fairly large. The most common fillings are chicken, raisins, onions, tomato sauce, and sometimes sweet peas. Pork is rare. Another variation is tamal de olla, which is cooked in a pot and then served directly onto plates. Tamales are usually served for all special occasions, including weddings and birthday parties, and are always found on the Christmas dinner table.

Peruvianmarker and Bolivianmarker tamales tend to be spicy, larger, and are wrapped in banana leaves. Common fillings are chicken or pork, usually accompanied by boiled eggs, olives, peanuts or a piece of chilli pepper mainly in Lima, the capital city. In other cities tamales are smaller and wrapped in corn husks. They differ from the tamales made in Lima in that they use white corn instead of yellow corn as people in Lima do. Another version is called humita. It can be salted or sweet. Sweet ones have raisins, vanilla, oil, sugar. Salty ones can be filled with cheese (queso fresco) or chicken. Humitas are cooked in the oven or in the pachamanca. In Brazilmarker there is two kinds of tamales known as pamonha: sweet or salty, both filled with cheese.

Tamales are also found in Colombiamarker, where there are several varieties (including most widely known tolimense as well as boyacense and santandereano). Like other South American varieties, the most common are very large compared to Mexican tamales — about the size of a softball - and the dough softer and wetter, with a bright yellow color. A tamal tolimense is served for breakfast with hot chocolate, and may contain large pieces of cooked carrot or other vegetables, whole corn kernels, rice, chicken on the bone and/or chunks of pork. A related food is the envuelto or bollo, which is cooked in a corn husk, and actually resembles a typical Mexican tamal more closely.Ecuadormarker has a variety of tamales and humitas, they can be filled with fresh cheese, pork, chicken or raisins. Ecuadorian tamales are usually wrapped in corn husk or achira leaves. Nacatamales are also tamales. See nacatamal.

The tamal is also a staple in Belizemarker, where it is also known (in English) by the Spanish name bollo.

Tamales are also found in the Dominican Republicmarker & Puerto Rico. Instead of tamales they are known as pasteles (NOTE: the word pastel or pasteles can also mean pastry (implied to be sweet) in Spanish). Instead of corn the dough is usually made of green plantains, yautia (dasheen) and green bananas. The wrap is primarily composed of plantain or banana leaves. These countries also have "guanime", or "guanimo" in some areas. It is made with yellow corn meal, coconut milk and a pinch of sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf, and boiled. There is a version with filling called guanimes rellenos. This filling may be ground beef,chicken or pork, resembling the filling of numerous fried items.

Tamales are also found in the north of Argentina (the provinces of Jujuy and Salta). Tamales Salteños are made with shredded meat of a boiled head of a lamb or pork and corn flour wrapped in "chalas". Tamales Jujeños use minced meat and corn and red peppers.Humitas are not tamales by argentine standards.

Tamales in other countries

A indigenized version of the Mexican tamales. The Filipino tamale is a steamed delicacy made with a mixture of ground white and brown (toasted) rice, ground peanuts and coconut milk topped with strips of chicken, chorizo and slices of hard boiled eggs and wrapped in banana leaves.

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