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10 Fascinating Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Tamales

Tamales wrap in a plastic bag for cooking

Tamales are one of the easiest recipes to pick up if you’re learning how to cook, but that simplicity doesn’t make the dish itself simple. Today, Texas Lone Star Tamales is going to dive into these fun facts about our favorite Mexican dish.

1. Endless Combinations

Tamales are most well known for their more traditional combinations, those with beef, chicken, or veggies, but there are even more combinations beyond those. Tamales simple recipe makes it easy for anyone to learn how to make them, and in turn allow anyone to quickly experiment with their combinations. This has resulted in all kinds of delicious tamales from the traditional flavors to tamales filled with chocolate for dessert to tamales filled with extra chilis and peppers for an extra spicy pocket of heat.

2. Banana Leaf

Corn husks became popular wrappers for tamales because corn grew in so many parts of the country. However, for parts of Central America where corn didn’t grow as much, locals instead turned to banana or plantain leaves. These massive palms were considerably bigger than corn husks, making massive tamales now called pibs, or their even more gigantic variant zacahuil, which were enough to serve a whole party alone.

3. Hidden Baby

As part of Catholicism coming into Mexico, certain recipes were used to celebrate Catholic holidays, like Epiphany. One of these was the Rosca de Reyes, or King’s Cake. You may have had a sweeter version of this cake, since it’s often made from sweet bread or cake with a trinket hidden inside, often in the shape of a baby. In Mexico, the tradition continued that if you found the trinket, you had to host a dinner with tamales as the main course.

4. Historic Recipe

Tamales have a long history. We can trace back their recipes to the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans. As each of these cultures expanded, they needed a way to transport food for their armies. This resulted in a meal that could be wrapped up and packed away without spoiling or making a mess, making the first tamales as we know it. Tamales come from the Aztec word “tamalli,” which means wrapped food. From there, the expansion of culture spread the recipe and locals began to develop their own variants based on their local flora and fauna.

5. Cultural Importance

By the time of the Aztecs, tamales weren’t only popular, they were important in many religious ceremonies. This included ceremonies around the corn god, Centeōtl, for festivals such as Atamalqualiztli, where people would fast for a week while only eating unseasoned tamales soaked in water once a day. During Izcalli, the month and the festival, tamales would be cooked to honor Xiuhtecuhtli the fire god, in respect of the “rebirth month.”

6. Eat the Husk

It’s a common question, particularly north of the border, about whether you eat the corn husk around your tamal. The answer to this questions is that the authentic way to eat tamales is no, you should not eat your corn husk. However, there are types of tamales where you would eat the wrapper, just not with a corn one. Some tamales are wrapped with avocado leaves, which can be eaten alongside the filling.

7. Singular Of Tamales

When tamales were adopted from tamalli, it was integrated with Mexican Spanish, and in doing so, developed a split opinion on how it should be formatted in the new language. Using standard Spanish conjugation rules, the singular of tamales is “tamal,” not “tamale.” However, this isn’t a widely adopted rule, which is why you may see either tamal or tamale when talking about tamales. However you spell it, that doesn’t change their delicious taste.

8. European Expansion

When Europeans came to the Americas, they brought with them a whole variety of foods and spices. Some of these include the very basics of what we’d consider essential in tamales today, like pork or chicken. These new dishes meant an expansion on an already popular favorite, moving tamales closer to the recipes we have today.

9. Indication of Trade

A lot of people tend to think that Native Americans were limited in their civilization and travel, but that’s not true at all. And we can support it with tamales! Recipes for tamales originated in Mesoamerica on the Yucatan Peninsula. However, by the 1600s when British settlers started to arrive in North America, people like Captain John Smith claim to have been served tamales, or a dish very similar to it. That’s roughly 50 hours to drive today from the birthplace of the tamales to where settlers were landing and could have been well into a 1000 hours to walk. For a recipe to travel that far means not only have tamales always been popular but also that the people who spread it had to be woven together closely for it to move from the Yucatan to Virginia.

10. Tamales Come To The States

Despite the United States’ history of tamales and tamale-like dishes, tamales didn’t really become popular in their traditional sense with people in the United States until just before the turn of the 20th century, when they were served at the World’s Columbian Exposition. From there, the dish picked up traction in mainstream dining. In the 1930’s they even received their own song, “They’re Red Hot” by Robert Johnson. The rest is history, and now you can find tamales in most Mexican restaurants.

One of the easiest ways to get some delicious tamales is to order through Texas Lone Star Tamales. We use top of the line ingredients, with a number of recipes for every dietary need. Order your tamales today, or contact us for more questions on the best tamales north of the border


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