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HISTORY

Mexican Origins: the prehispanic tradition of eating tamales for special occasions

One of the most famous and delicious dishes in Latin America is actually a great representation of mexican culture and the story behind it goes far back to the prehispanic era.

Corn has always been one of the main food sources for Mexicans. From it, you can create so many traditional dishes like tortillas, tacos, chilaquiles, and of course, tamales. This traditional cylinder-shaped food has so much history and culture, from the preparation and ingredients to why it was eaten on certain dates, and we are here to unveil all of it for your knowledge.

The origin of tamales

Tamales are another extension of corn dishes and this ingredient has been present in the Mexican diet since the beginning of time. We can attribute its existence to the mesoamerican culture. With that being said, there isn't enough evidence that this type of food is 100% Mexican since it was also consumed in other Latin American countries as well, and knowing that food exchange was very common at the time, we cannot deny the possibility that other regions were the ones who brought this culinary concept to Mexico or just the other way around.

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The word tamal comes from the Nahuatl alternative tamalli, which means wrapped. At first, it was made of a corn paste that wrapped a filling of meat, vegetables, and chili that was steamed inside a crockpot; but with the Spanish colonization and the access to lard, the preparation changed to be a little less healthy but with way more flavor as well. In fact, it is thanks to Fray Bernardino de Sahugún that we get to know how people used to eat and prepare them before the actual colonization.

Like many other traditional preparations, tamales were a special-occasion type of food, and people used to consume them especially during the celebration of the Earth's fertility, or the “blessing of the seeds“, a ritual where people offered their harvests in order to get a good season, the commemoration of Atamalcualiztli where people honored Tláloc --the mexica rain God, and so many more festivities or social events. 

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Candlemas Day

Probably one of the most popular occasion to eat tamales nowadays is the Candlemas Day, commemorated every February 2nd. 

This  catholic festivity remembers the date when Baby Jesus was presented to the Church after 40 days of being born, just as the Jewish tradition dictates. 

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With this in mind, the evangelizers that came along with the Spanish colonization looked for a way in which they could instruct this story to the natives and decided to take advantage of the existing rituals they had around these dates (where the main dish was tamales) and adapt them to their catholic celebration. 

Because of this, it is now part of the tradition that whoever got the Baby Jesus figure while cutting the Rosca de Reyes on January 6th, has to give tamales to everyone present on February 2nd. 

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Current tradition

Besides Candlemas day, people have also developed different ways in which they recognize the importance of tamales in Mexican culture. They now celebrate the “Tamale fair“ where each year they can try a bunch of different tamales, from the traditional ones to new ingredients accompanied mostly with atole. 

Also, you don't have to wait for a special occasion to eat tamales nowadays since you can get them pretty much everywhere from the streets of Mexico, to any Mexican restaurant. And if you are feeling adventurous, try also to get the yummiest version of them all which are the Guajolotas, kind of a sandwich but with just an entire tamale inside and is a tradition dish of Mexico City. 

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Photos from Instagram @somostamalli

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