Border Studies at EPCC
NW Library and EPCC Links
Other Local Libraries
We do NOT have the resources to assist with genealogical research.
For GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH please contact:
*El Paso Genealogical Society
Tamales By Any Other Name Remain The Same
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Xochitl Anaya
Slowly peel back the soft corn husk wrapping. Feel the ridges of the paper between your fingers. At once the enticing aromas of corn, fresh masa, chile and oregano fill the air. Steam rises suddenly as you carefully unwrap the small pie from its warm cocoon. Your mouth waters in anticipation as the taste of an ancient world unfolds.
The tamal has always had the taste and flavor all its own. Although this dish is a border favorite, few people really know the history behind tamales or how many ways they can be prepared.
The history of the tamal dates back to the Aztecs before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Aztecs referred to tamales as tamalli. They were prepared as a dish for ceremonies and festivals. Tribal priests molded tamales with their hands as an offering to the gods.
During various celebrations, Aztec men would climb to the top of a pole. Idols made of tamales, placed at the top of the pole, were broken into pieces and thrown down to the people below. The tamal was used as a form of communion with their gods.
The Aztec preparation of the tamal dough was both time consuming and tedious. Corn was boiled and then ground into a fine powder by hand with a metate. Water was added to the powder and formed into a paste. After the paste was strained and stirred several times, a ball of dough was spread across the center of the husk. The tamal would then be wrapped and finally cooked.
Originally the Aztecs cooked the tamales by burying them in hot ashes which made them crispy and brown. When the conquistadores arrived in México, the Aztecs has develop a new method for cooking tamales. They steamed the tamales in underground pits or in uncovered pots. Using this method, the Aztecs believed that the tamal stuck to the bottom of the pot was good luck and would ward off danger on the battleground.
After the arrival of the conquistadores, the tamal was no longer a religious symbol. The Christian conquerors adapted the Aztec tradition to include tamales as a part of the Christmas and Easter holiday feasts.
Throughout México variations of the tamal can be found. The varieties are based on the different fillings and wrapping styles. In San Luis Potosí, tamales are called zacahuil en muerto, a name that refers to the dead. The tamal is wrapped in papatla husks, which are similar to banana leaves, and covered in clay to resemble a coffin. This tamal traditionally is eaten on All Saints Day, November 1.
Another type of tamal is known as the dzotobichav. This variation is a large tamal formed into the shape of a jellyroll. The filling consists of toasted pumpkin seeds. The dzotobichav is wrapped in a banana leaf and served with tomato sauce. Along the coast of México, banana leaves are used to wrap tamales. The leaves must be roasted or boiled first so they can be folded into a square tamal shape. Other states in México wrap tamales in fresh corn husks that have been first soaked for several hours for flexibility.
Other variations of the tamal include another variation of the zacahuil which is made in the state of Tampico. It is wrapped in a banana leaf and tightly secured with a strip of palm string. A version of tamales corundas are made in the state of Michoacán. The dough is made of nixtamal and lime. The corundas are wrapped in leaves from the maize plant called milpa.
One very popular type of tamal is tamal de bola. These tamales are round, and the filling consists of a rib of pork, a prune and a small dried chile called simojovel.
Traditionally, fresh corn is used to make tamales throughout México. Blue corn is widely used in the Southwest region of the United States. Fillings in tamales vary, but the most common fillings in México are green chile, red chile or a slice of chile with cheese. Meat fillings include chicken and fish like pejelagarto, commonly used in Veracruz. Various vegetables such as nopales, tunas and quelites (types of cactus and amaranth) mixed with chile and spices can make for a very healthy tamal.
Tamales de dulce, also known as sweet tamales, have a different taste. Most of these tamales are filled with fruit , jam or nuts. Often tamales de dulce are dyed with pink food coloring to help distinguish them from regular tamales.
Here on the border and in the surroundings areas, the most common tamales are made with red or green chile and are filled with shredded pork, beef or chicken. Sweet tamales on the border usually are filled only with raisins and sugar. Standard-sized tamales are about six inches in length by three inches in width.
A common source of corn masa used for tamales here in the Southwest region is a pre-processed, dehydrated masa called Masa Harina. It is premixed and very easy to work with. A person can also buy masa made from scratch in various stages of preparation at tortillerias and some Mexican restaurants, especially during Christmas season. The wrapping technique is very similar to the traditional corn husk procedure used in many parts of México. Although a type of reusable plastic wrapping has been recently developed which eliminates wasted corn husks, the traditional method is still preferred.
The tamal has a long and colorful history. Although there have been slight variations in the fillings, wrappings and names given to the tamal in different areas, the basic idea remains the same. The traditional tamal has been passed down from one generation to the next. Future generations to come also will be able to preserve the folklore and tradition our ancestors left behind.