Along with tacos, tamales might be one of those traditional Mexican foods eaten daily throughout the country. It’s estimated that there are over 500 varieties of tamales in the country, made with all sorts of local ingredients and classic flavors. Most Mexican tamales are prepared with corn-based dough, meat, and sauce. They’re wrapped with corn leaves, banana leaves, maguey, or even avocado peels. What makes tamales so delicious and traditional is that they’re steam-cooked either on a special pot or underground.
Its origins date back to pre-Hispanic times, being one of the most sacred foods for different cultures, including the Aztecs, Mayas, Olmecs, and Toltecs. Tamales are recorded to appear in both religious rituals, offerings, marriage ceremonies, as well as a sacred food given to soldiers before battle. As time has passed, tamales have become a central food in the Mexican’s diet, but also a staple trait in certain festivities like Christmas.
In Mexico, the holidays don’t end until Candlemass day on February 2, when families gather around to enjoy some delicious tamales. On January 6, it’s accustomed to eating a big Rosca de Reyes to celebrate the day the Three Wise Men went to meet Baby Jesus. The Rosca has some hidden Baby Jesus figurines, and according to tradition, if you get one on your Rosca piece, you have to bring the tamales on Candlemas Day.
Whether you’re looking for a holiday trait or just a delicious meal, here are 10 of the most popular Mexican tamales.
These are probably the most recognizable tamales in the world. They’re wrapped in corn leaves and are often filled with pork meat or chicken. These tamales come in a delicious red or green sauce that keeps them moist. This is the type of tamal you’re likely to find on every corner of Mexico City, and Chilangos (as Mexican call the people of the city) really enjoy making the traditional ‘guajolota,’ which essentially is a tamal sandwich.
Also a classic in the center of the country, sweet tamales, or the classic pink tamales, are cooked like the classic ones, but instead of meat and sauce, the corn dough is simply sweetened with sugar or piloncillo (raw form of pure cane sugar). Most pink tamales come with raisins, and in some places, they add a bit of cinnamon to add some flavor. To get that characteristic pink shade, people nowadays use food dyes, but back in ancient times, they would make a mix with grana cochinilla, an insect used to get carmine.
In many states of the country, the term Oaxaqueño is used to refer to tamales wrapped and cooked in banana leaves. This type of tamales are prepared with a very thin layer of dough and are often filled with traditional mole, red or green sauce. In the state of Oaxaca, tamales are often filled with black mole, and people like accompanying it with a warm cup of watered chocolate.
The Chaya tamales are very common in the Southern and Southeastern regions of the country, mainly in states like Campeche. There, the corn dough is mixed with chaya, an endemic plant used by the ancient Mayas for medicinal purposes. These tamales are filled with grounded pork meat, tomato, olives, and toasted pumpkin seeds. These are often wrapped in banana leaves and are served with a delicious red sauce and fresh cheese.
This is a traditional tamale in the Huasteca Potosina region in the center of the country. You can find the Zacahuil in states like San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Puebla, Veracruz, and Queretaro, and if you do be prepared for a colossal meal. With a size of approximately 1.5 meters and a weight of 60 kilos, the Zacahuil can feed up to 40 people. It’s prepared with lard, and a sauce made of several chiles like cascabel and chino. It’s filled with pork meat or chicken, and it takes several banana leaves to cover it all. It’s often served in portions and accompanied with picked green chiles.
Known by the ancient Purépechas as khurhúnda, this delicatessen comes from the state of Michoacán in Western Mexico. It’s made of white corn dough, lard, milk, and water. What makes it very special is its characteristic triangular shape. This type of tamal is wrapped in sugar cane leaves and is often served with a fried red or green sauce, fresh cotija cheese (a salty dry cheese), sour cream, and some poblano pepper.
If you’re in Northern Mexico, you might want to give güemes a try. These are traditionally made in Baja California, and unlike other types of tamales, these are often prepared with olive oil in addition to lard. This makes the dough less spongy but equally delicious. Most güemes are wrapped in banana leaves and filled with pork meat or chicken. The dough is also mixed with olives, raisins, and even some pickles.
Let’s go back to the Southeastern region of the country to try this traditional Maya dish. The name of this tamale comes from the Maya word mukbil that means ‘buried.’ This is prepared with the classic corn dough, lard, and meat broth. These tamales are often filled with chicken cooked with achiote (an endemic red condiment), garlic, cumin, black pepper, epazote, and habanero pepper. These were traditionally cooked in an underground oven called pib.
This is a perfect tamal for those with a sweet tooth. Also original from Michoacán, Canarios differ from other tamales because it’s made with rice flour. Like many cakes, the batter is made also with baking powder, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, and it’s mixed with raisins. What makes this dessert a traditional tamal is that it’s also wrapped in corn leaves, and steam-cooked. Canarios are often accompanied by delicious atole or hot chocolate.
Last but not least, we have the tamal Chiapaneco which, like the tamal Oaxaqueño, isn’t a traditional tamal from the state of Chiapas. This is a rectangular tamal wrapped in banana leaves and filled with a very thin layer of dough and meat cooked with mole or pumpkin seeds.
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