Tomorrow commences the lively celebrations in honor of Cinco de Mayo where classic Mexican cuisine abounds. A number of celebratory feasts will include traditional foods such as the Mexican tamales, which are prominent pieces in the fabric of Mexico’s food history. The tamale namesake is derivative of the Nauhtl word tamalli, which means “wrapped food”. Tamales also can be found under their multinational aliases such as tamal in present-day Mexico, Cuba, and Central America; chuchitos in Guatemala; and bollo in Colombia among countless other terms. These uncomplicated meals consist of masa (ground corn flour and lard) stuffed plump with sweet or savory fillings and wrapped in corn or banana leaves.
Tamales emerged as far back in history as 8,000-5,000 BC when the populations of Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans existed. The unpretentious tamales developed as a solution to the food demands of the times. At the point in history when tamales emerged, pre-Colombian warriors lugged their female counterparts to battles to serve as army cooks. The women were needed to prepare masa for meals and drinks. Acknowledging the treachery in bringing the women as well as the arduous feat it was for women to prepare meals in such obstreperous circumstances, a simpler solution was needed. From this need arose the tamale, which could be prepared at home in advance and could easily be transported by warriors. Women were then able to remain at home tending to the other demands of domestic life.
In its early years, tamales were diverse in content and preparation. They could be comprised of bees, gophers, mushrooms, squash blossoms, tadpoles, rabbits, and whatever foods were available. Tamales were also sweetened by including chocolate, pineapple, cinnamon, bananas, and pumpkins. Hard and soft cheeses and colorful, flavor-rich sauces were added. Furthermore, tamales were often prepared in a number of different ways such as steaming, grilling over an open fire, oven-roasting, toasting, boiling, barbecuing, frying and by placing directly on the coals to warm. This assortment in tamales even included various shapes, sizes, and coloring, which afforded opportunities for creative expression by the cooks.
Tamales experienced a shift in the 20th Century when they materialized and multiplied in the United States and other countries worldwide. They soon, thereafter, conformed to what we associate as tamales in today’s times. Instead of the myriad range of fillings, tamales started being limited to chicken, pork, chile, beef, cheese, and vegetables. While they used to be prepared daily, due to the labor and time-intensive nature of tamales, they eventually switched to chiefly being prepared for special occasions and holidays.
Today, the most common form of preparation of tamales is by steaming or boiling them in leaf wrappings. One tradition that still persists from its creation is that tamale preparations continue to be a family affair. Tamalada is the term used for the day-long assembly of tamales by generations of women, friends, and other family members. Hundreds of tamales pass through the hands of Mexican families like torches passing from generation to generation carrying the stories, traditions and unique flavors rooted in the history of Mexico.
Organic Vegan Touch: Blue Tamale Recipe
5 lbs organic blue corn masa
3 lbs mixed organic beans (3 bags dried 15 bean mix) or 4 (12 oz cans of beans)
finely chopped vegetables of choice.
8 TBSP chili powder
1/4 tsp. cumin
2 medium cloves of organic garlic
salt to taste
1 package of corn husk
If using dried beans, soak overnight. Clean and rinse beans in the morning. Add to a large pot (or multiple pots if possible) and cover with 3-4 inches of water above the beans. Bring to a rolling boil and then lower heat and simmer until beans are tender but not mush. If using canned beans, rinse in a colander and set aside to be mixed with seasonings.
Meanwhile, add corn husks to a basin of water to soak for 35-45 minutes until pliable. Then, combine masa and vegetable shorting to form a masa paste. The mixture should form a malleable dough. Chop vegetables into small pieces and saute until tender. Set aside
When the beans have cooked, drain and add cumin, chili, garlic, and vegetable medley. Adjust spice amount to taste. Mix filling together. Next, remove the husks from the water and add 2 TBSP of masa dough to 2/3 of the corn husk. Top with bean/vegetable mixture.
To form the tamales, fold the sides of the husk toward the center, making sure the filling stays in the center. Then fold the top of the husk down. Pour 2 inches of water into a large pot and arrange the tamales on a rack above the water level. Steam the tamales for about 40-50 minutes until cooked. When the tamales can easily slide off the corn husks, then they are cooked and ready to eat.
*recipe inspired by traditional recipe in The Meaning of Food