The tamales date back to 8000 to 5000 BC Mesoamerica. These were made by the people who believe they are “people of the corn” and to whom the tamales is a sacred food for the gods, prepared and cooked not just for the sake of eating and nourishment, but also for use in rituals and festivals. The tamales has a long history among the Mesoamerican people. In fact, in Petén, Guatemala, there is a pictorial reference that appears to depict the cooking of tamales.
The main characteristic of the tamales that sets it apart from other similar foods is the wrapper. The corn husk (or banana leaf) covers the tamales before it is cooked. The corn masa (dough made from corn) is loaded with fillings like meat or vegetables before everything is wrapped and cooked. The wrapper’s reaction to heat allows it to transfer flavor to the masa and the fillings. This adds a smoky flavor to the food.
Besides that, the wrapper also performs a function role by making the tamales a portable food that is convenient to bring around, and this is important for the people of the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, and Toltec civilizations especially when they are hunting or are set to be away from home for long. The wrapper also ensures that the food remains covered while it is not yet being eaten.
- It is not uncommon to find tamales containing frog meat. Aztecs cook tamales this way.
- Mesoamericans believed that if a woman can make tamales, she is worthy of esteem.
- There are 4,000 ways to make tamales.
- Folk belief has it that it is not good to have crying women or children around when cooking tamales.
- The tamales is Christmas food.
Tamales Buying Guide
As a popular Mexican food that is made and sold in the United States, finding a place to buy and eat tamales should not prove difficult. You can find tamales sold in food trucks, restaurants, even at a gas station or the grocery store.
Before buying, first, make sure you are familiar with the typical ingredients found in tamales and make sure you do not have any food allergy or health problems that make eating tamales not ideal for you. Each tamal is different from the other, so make sure to check what’s inside the tamales by reading the packaging (if you are buying frozen tamales) or by asking whoever is attending to your order if you are at a restaurant.
If you are buying frozen tamales, make sure to check the box if any part is crushed or if it has holes in it. From the time it left the manufacturing plant to the time you are holding while grocery shopping, a lot of things could have happened that could potentially damage the integrity of the packaging and render the frozen tamales inside compromised. If you are planning to eat the tamales on a specific date, check the expiration date indicated in the box to make sure the tamales are still good to eat on the day you plan to eat it.
If you live or constantly go somewhere which is near a restaurant serving freshly-made tamales every day, buy enough tamales you can finish the entire day so you don’t have any leftovers to refrigerate which you will eventually discard since you prefer eating freshly-made tamales. This is wasteful.
Tamales Production & Farming in Texas
Texas is a hotbed when it comes to different Mexican foods, and tamales are everywhere here. The production of tamales in Texas is characterized by the mutual coexistence of both old, decades-long businesses and the young, upstart businesses; the big commercial businesses and the small, family ran and owned businesses, the traditional point of sales like restaurants, mall kiosks, food trucks, and groceries and the vendors making use of the Internet to reach more customers.
Selling Mexican food is a big business in Texas because Texans love tacos, tortillas, and tamales, to name a few. Some businesses offer freshly-made tamales prepared during the day, while others sell frozen tamales because preparing them ahead is the only way to cope with the daily demand for this delicious food.
Overall, there is always a good reason to try the tamales in a different restaurant or food truck or from an upstart business here in Texas simply because there is a lot of room for variation when it comes to how the tamales taste and appear and what’s in it. The tamales in Texas have not just diversified but it also evolved to suit the demands of an ever-evolving consumer base – now, you can find vegan tamales, vegetarian tamales, or gluten-free tamales.
Pesticides, Additives, and Chemicals:
In the book Tortillas: Wheat Flour and Corn Products, authors LW Rooney and Sergio O. Serna-Saldivar explained that “other additives such as gums, emulsifiers, acidulants, preservatives, bleaching agents, and enrichment mixes are commonly added to make tailor-made masa flours before packaging.”
To extend the shelf life of frozen tamales, manufacturers need to use preservatives including but not limited to the following:
- Sodium propionate
- Potassium sorbate
- Calcium hydroxide
To improve the taste of the tamales, it is possible that some or all of these additives are being used in making the product:
- Modified Corn Starch
- Hydrolyzed Plant Protein
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
- Hydrogenated Starch Hydrosylate
- Vegetable gum
- Extenders and Binders
Manufacturers put tamales in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. Some companies sell tamales this way. Other companies put the vacuum-sealed plastic bag inside a box. When you browse the frozen tamales, you will notice that the boxes come in different sizes. The size of the box depends on how many tamales are sold per box. The box provides the consumer with important information like expiration date, ingredients, nutritional information, and instructions on how to prepare the frozen tamales before eating.
The packaging of tamales bought from the restaurant differs. Instead of using vacuum-sealed plastic bags, take-out tamales or tamales to-go is usually wrapped in aluminum foil before putting it in the bag. Other restaurants want to make it more presentable by putting the tamales inside a box.
If you are eating in a more casual / street food setting, expect your tamales in a disposable cardboard tray, cardboard takeout container, or carton food box.
The most important reminder when eating tamales is to make sure you have completely opened the corn husk or banana leaf wrapper and none of it is in the tamales while you are eating. The wrapper adds a distinct smoky flavor but eating it can ruin the taste of the tamales.
Feel free to use just your fingers to pick up and eat your food, especially if you are eating in a casual setting (i.e. food truck). If you are eating in a restaurant, it is better if you use utensils especially if you are expected to observe basic dining decorum and etiquette.
You can refrigerate leftover tamales, whether freshly-made/home-made or frozen/store-bought. This gives you one week to eat it. Any longer than that and you are risking eating tamales that could be spoiled or moldy. If you want to keep them for longer than a week, the best way is to freeze the tamales. Put it inside a ziplock bag or plastic container and put it in the freezer. Frozen tamales will hold for two months.
For frozen tamales bought from the grocery store, make sure to check the expiration date so that you’ll know how long you can store this food in the refrigerator or freezer.
Make your own tamales:
There are many reasons why you should make your own tamales. If you have unexpected guests, you have frozen tamales you can quickly steam and offer as a snack to your guests. If you go hungry in the middle of the night or if you discover you’ve run out of cereals in the morning, you have tamales at home to fill your stomach. If you have busy days ahead with little to no time for cooking, you can cook tamales now and reheat when it is time to eat.
This recipe yields 50 tamales.
- 3 1⁄2 lbs pork shoulder or 3 1/2 lbs. pork butt, trimmed of fat and cut up
- 10 cups water
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
- 4 cups red chili sauce (see Red Chili Sauce (To Be Used With Traditional Tamales) for red chili sauce)
- 3⁄4 cup shortening
- 6 cups masa harina
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
- 50 dried corn husks (about 8 inches long)
Step 1: Boil pork, water, onion, garlic, and 1 1/2 salt.
Step 2: Cover and let simmer for 2 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender.
Step 3: Remove meat from broth. Set meat and broth aside to cool. Once cool enough, strain the broth to remove fat and other impurities.
Step 4: Use forks to shred the meat. Make sure to discard the fat.
Step 5: Mix the red chili sauce and meat in a large saucepan and then simmer for 10 minutes.
Step 6: Make the masa. Beat shortening on medium speed in a large bowl for 1 minute.
Step 7: Stir together masa harina, baking powder, and 2 teaspoons salt in a separate bowl.
Step 8: Alternately add masa harina mixture and broth to shortening. Make sure to add just enough broth to make a thick, creamy paste.
Step 9: Soak corn husks in warm water for 20 minutes and then rinse to remove any corn silk.
Step 10: Assemble the tamales. Spread 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture on the center of the corn husk. Add 1 tablespoon of meat and sauce mixture.
Step 11: Fold the sides of the husk and after that, fold the bottom too.
Step 12: Place a mound of extra husks or a foil ball in the center of a steamer basket placed in a Dutch oven.
Step 13: Lean the tamales in the basket, open side up.
Step 14: Add water to the Dutch oven just below the basket.
Step 15: Bring water to boil and reduce heat.
Step 16: Cover and steam for 40 minutes. Add water when necessary.