Tamales can be traced back to as early as 7000 B.C. in Pre-Columbian history, when the Aztec women were taken along in battle as cooks for the army. They made the masa for the tortillas, stews, drinks, etc. But as the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, there was a need to have a more portable yet sustainable food and the tamales could be made ahead of time, packed and warmed as needed. This requirement demanded the creativity of the women…hence the tamales were born!
Originally, the tamales were cooked by burying them in hot ashes, which made them crispy and brown. However, as time progressed, the Aztecs began to implement new methods for cooking, learned from the Spanish conquistadores. At which point, steaming the tamales in underground pits became a lesser practice and steaming them in pots became the practice. When steaming the tamales, the Aztecs believed that the tamales sticking to the bottom of the pot was a sign of good luck, and would protect them of the dangers on the battleground.
The tamales changed in size, color, shape, and filling, depending on the location and the resources available. The wrappings varied from cornhusks, to soft tree bark, to edible leaves, such as those from avocados and bananas. Even fabric was sometimes used. Today, the most common variety of tamales are composed of masa (hominy flour dough) spread on a corn shuck and filled with either chicken, pork, beef, green chile, cheese, or, more recently, vegetables. Another thing that has changed is the use of the tamale as an every day food.
Unlike in Aztec society, today’s tamale tradition is as much about making them as it is about eating them. There is nothing different about “Christmas” tamales, other than they are made for Christmas. However, because the preparation is so time and labor intensive, tamales have become associated more with the Christmas holidays and special occasions. Perhaps because these are times that family and friends come together and thus can work together to prepare the masa and to make the sauces and meats. The kitchen is converted into an assembly line to wrap the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process for making tamales takes all day and preparations often start one or two days prior. Therefore, making just a few tamales is rarely heard of. Making tamales has become a social event, often referred to as a tamalada, where people come together to make new friendships and strengthen old ones.
Today, the influence of tamales has expanded beyond the Hispanic community and is loved by all cultures. Our tamales are authentic, but elevated, and different than any other tamales you’ve had. We are branching out from just chicken, pork, beef, and cheese. We are serving them with our own pickled vegetables (escabeche), and a citrus coleslaw salad (repollo). We are making our own refreshing coconut horchata to accompany your meal. What’s not to like?