Tamales date back to pre-Columbian (before Columbus) Mexico and possibly even further. No history of the tamale would be complete without discussing the process of "nixtamalization". Nixtamalization is the processing of field corn with wood ashes (pre-Colombian) or now with "cal, slaked lime". This processing softens the corn for easier grinding and also aids in digestibility and increases the nutrients absorbed by the human body.
Nixtamalization dates back to the southern coast of Guatemala around 1200 - 1500BC where kitchens were found equipped with the necessities of nixtamal making. We have found no specific references to the making of tamales at this time.
It is well documented by Friar Bernardino de Shaagun in the 1550's that the Spaniards were served tamales by the Aztecs during their first visits to Mexico. (America's First Cuisine's - Sophie D. Coe). Tamales were made with beans, meats and chiles and cooked on the open fires as well as on comals.
As with most Mexican foods each region of Mexico has it's own specialties. Specialty versions abound but here are examples of some of the variations listed by region.
Culiacan, Sinaloa - Everyday varieties include tamals made of small, sweet brown beans, pineapple and corn. Special occasion versions are large and made with both meat and vegetables.
Veracruz - Tamales made of fresh corn and pork seasoned with hoja santa. Other styles include banana-leaf wrapped masa with chicken and hoja santa.
Oaxaca - Large tamales wrapped in banana leaves spiced with their regional specialty "black mole". They also do a corn husk variety with other moles including green or yellow with small black beans and chepil (a herb).
Monterrey - This region prefers a small tamal that uses both smooth or coarse dough which includes shredded meat and red chilies.
Yucatan - Achiote is a favored seasoning. Many tamales from this region are quite large and cooked either in a pit or baked in the oven. The dough is made of smooth-ground masa and fillings include chicken and pork, or a combination. Another version is called the vaporcitos, a simple thin layer of masa on a banana leaf, steamed. Tamales colads, a thin dough with fillings of chicken, tomato and achiote.
San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas - A banana leaf wrapped version called tamales untados, filled with pork and a mole.
Michoacan - Specialties include corundas wrapped in fresh corn leaves and unfilled.
North Western Mexico - Both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless write of the huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles made with very coarsely ground masa with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves. These monstrous tamales are baked in wood heated ovens in specialty restaurants, normally on weekends.
Banana leaves are quite large and make very efficient wrappers for the larger style tamales. It is best to pick young fresh, tender leaves if you have a plant available. Otherwise they are available frozen in many Latin markets. To prepare you have to slice the leaf along the central rib, and remove the rib. The leaves must be heated and wilted over an open high flame to make them flexible. Once cooled, masa is placed on the "smooth" side of the leaf. Tamales are later boiled, or steamed.
Chaya also know as Jatropha aconitifolia or Cnidoscolus Chayamansa is similar to spinach and even richer in iron. This plant was well known to the Mayan culture and is still available in some parts of Mexico. The leaves are used medicinally, as well as a cooked or raw vegetable. The raw leaves are also used as a tamal wrapper.
The tamalon is actually a large tamal that serves many people. You can use a simple smooth (not terry cloth) dish towel to wrap this giant tamale. Typical ingredients are masa with seasonings mixed with strips of swiss chard. The tamal is steamed then unwrapped, sliced like a jellyroll and served.
Each style of tamal uses a very specific type of masa (corn dough). The best of the best comes from the Mexico City region where the tamales are white and spongy.
Masa Refregada - This style of masa is made of dried white corn, cal (slaked lime) and water. After the heating and soaking process the corn is drained, the skins removed (buy copious amounts of washing), then ground in a mill to a textured dough that is not as fine as what would be used for tortillas. This style makes a spongier tamal than masa flour but less so than the Textured Corn Flour version. See recipe (Nixtamal). For excellent recipes we suggest the two books listed below in the Credits Section.
Textured Corn Flour - The process is similar to the masa refregada but the slaked corn or hominy (corn soaked in cal) is dried after the skins are removed. The dried corn is then ground to the texture of fine grits. This style masa produces very white, spongy tamales.
Commercial Masa para Tamales - Maseca makes a "instant" masa product made specifically for tamales. Tamale "aficionados" would probably have apoplexy at the thought but for those of you who don't have access to fresh tamale dough, and don't choose to wade through the process, it is an alternative.
The filling for the tamal can be anything from squash or beans, to fish, chicken, beef, pork, pumpkin seeds, hard cooked eggs, even dove breast. Other more exotic ingredients are alligator tail or iguana.
Probably one of the biggest challenges new tamale makers face is the task of spreading the masa onto the corn husk. Commonly you'd just use the back of a spoon to spread the dough. Because the dough tends to be stiff, this is not as easy as it should be. And thus the "masa spreader" was born. This handy gadget makes spreading masa a breeze. You use it like a cement trowel. Just pick up some masa with the edge of the tool and place at an angle along the moistened corn husk and spread. This is one great invention.
There are many ways to wrap a tamale and again, the style will vary in different regions of Mexico. In fact, you don't always need to tie tamales. The purpose of tying is to make sure the tamal stays folded while it is steaming.
The steamer used commonly in Mexico is referred to as a "Bote Tamalera" which just means "tin tamale steamer". The steamers look like a trash can but have a steamer insert in the bottom and a lid.
A small amount of water is held in the bottom of the steamer and it is topped with perforated metal divided that keeps the tamales out of the water. This perforated piece is layered with corn husks then the tamales are placed on top of the husks, the lid placed on the steamer and the tamales cook until down (time varies depending on the recipe). These steamers come in various sizes that will accommodate from 30 - 80 or more tamales.
Asian Bamboo Steamer