How old is the tradition of tamales? Were tamales the first original "dish" from maize? Were such a simple food like tamales really a sustaining force in history? For centuries tamales have had a steady reputation of sustainability and authentic flavor. Their humble beginnings came from a kernel of corn and a will to survive.
Even in ancient times, Mesoamerican farmers relied heavily on the conditions of the land and climate in order to survive and thrive. History denotes accounts of civilizations escaping harsh elements. People migrated as needed, they hunted, fished and searched for possible edible foods off the land. When they discovered good seeds, they cultivated and harvested a crop. Each improvement allowed for longer seasons, stability and growth. The ancient people surrounded themselves with gods and idols because they believed that supernatural forces controlled the earth and elements, thus they worshiped a god for rain, sun, water, wind and land. As the original meteorologists, they read the “mood” of the gods and predicted weather forecasts. They traveled accordingly, hoping for better weather and good soil with each migration. They were the original students of vegetation, searching for food in the various plants to survive.
The Three Sisters of Mesoamerican Crops
They discovered that beans, squash and maize were the original “superfoods” needed for their survival. Evidence in history shows the incredible value of these foods, and of the three, corn evolved and thrived, becoming the top crop of the trio. Ancient farmers planted the larger crop of corn and surrounded it with beans and squash, this way the crops would aid one another as they flourished. This method is called Three Sisters gardening.
When Mesoamericans discovered that the beans that grew in the wild were edible they cultivated and domesticated them through various processes of selection and elimination. The “Common Bean” as we now know it, was nurtured and harvested into various sizes and colors, eventually many different variations evolved. The original practice of soaking and boiling beans remains to this day. They can be prepared in several different ways, a popular Mexican dish is frijoles fritos or refried beans. However you choose to enjoy beans, they are a good source of protein, fiber and vitamins. For ancient Mesoamericans they were a crucial addition to their food supply.
Today beans are used almost around the world and they contribute to the health and wellbeing of humanity. Like corn, through the many evolutions of civilizations, beans have humbly remained a strong and steady support to mankind and are a vital part of Mexican cuisine.
Squash is the other food of the trio that Mesoamericans depended on. Just as beans provide a rich amount of nutrients, squash also provides vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Mesoamericans domesticated squash and exploited it thoroughly. Squash was gutted, their seeds were separated and dried for medicinal use. The “meaty insides of squash was eaten raw or cooked, while their large leaves were used as cooking and farming aids. The outer shell was also preserved and converted into a storage container for other foods and for water. This sustainable food was incredibly useful. The nutrients it provided and the support it gave to its sisters; beans and corn, was invaluable.
Of the “Three Sisters” Maize was the major staple food of Mesoamerican culture. Corn in its original state was first teosinte grass. It was mostly used as a sweetener. They chewed the wild grass stalks to extract its sweet flavor. By studying, experimenting, selecting and breeding the various seeds in the stalks, Mesoamerican farmers succeeded in cultivating the much more profitable crop of corn. It was a larger kernel that was planted and yielded a harvest of corn to feed the whole community, the corn was either boiled or mashed into a gruel for consumption.
The Original Tamal
Corn that was grounded and mushy opened the gateway to the original tamalii, wrapped food. Essentially they were small cooked dough mounds that were long lasting and easily transported. This wrapped food provided the needed nutrients and carbohydrates for energy to survive and maintain their population as they migrated. The sustainability of corn made it the centerpiece of religious rites and ceremonies. Nixtamalization, which is an ancient process of soaking the kernels in alkali that came from ashes, pushed corn into a higher level of importance and popularity. When masa was conceived out of the soft corn kernels it helped build the authenticity and diversity of Mexican cuisine. Many delicious Mexican food favorites are derived from masa harina, starting with authentic tamales.
The tradition of tamales has roots that reach deep into the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. Their primary goal was survival and their resourcefulness resulted in the creation of tamales which are still a vital part of Mexican food and culture.
A few thousand years later, delicious tamales are the platform of Mexican culture and flavor; their sustaining role has left an imprint throughout history. We have the traditional Mexican tamale and we have “flavor fusion” with the many evolutionary changes that have come with migration and other cultures. Savory and sweet fillings are without limit and technology allows easy access to flavorful tamales with just a few clicks..
Americans love tamales, they are the foundation of delicious Mexican cuisine and they are the heart of Mexican holiday traditions. Traditional Mexican tamales are as authentic as ever and Texas style tamales have come along and perfected the ratio of masa and filling. As the seasons have changed again and the holidays are around the corner, enjoy delicious Mexican tamales this holiday season without hassle or time crunch. Texas Lone Star Tamales is your authentic tamales stop.