The word tamal (singular for tamales) comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli and refers to something wrapped up. A tamal consists of a leaf as a wrapper, the masa (dough), and the filling. Wrapping leaves are dried or fresh corn husks, banana leaves, and sometimes chard or other native leaves. The fillings are meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and often have a coating of mole or other sauce to moisten the filling.
To make tamales, the masa dough and filling are prepared separately. Dried corn husks are soaked to soften them, or green leaves are steamed or parboiled to make them pliable. When all elements are ready, the leaf is spread with masa, topped with filling, and then folded over the fillings. Then the tamales are steamed in the top of a large metal double boiler-steamer, under a layer of more leaves to prevent excess moisture from dripping on the tamales.
Tamales are made in many sizes, from small appetizer bites to the giant zacahuil from the Huasteca region of Veracruz; it is so large that the masa and meats must be wrapped in layers of huge banana leaves, then secured with wire. The zacahuil is then placed on a wooden plank and carried to the village oven to bake about 8 hours. Later, the spectacular unwrapping of the huge tamal sends incredible aromas into a room. Masa and filling is then spooned onto plates and the feast begins!
Besides a great variety of savory tamales, there are also sweet tamales filled with different kinds of fruits and nuts. These are commonly eaten for breakfast with hot chocolate or as an evening treat. People are often surprised to learn the great variety of tamales in Mexico. Travelers to Mexico are rewarded when they discover and taste some of the regional tamales such as uchepos (fresh corn) from Michoacan, tamales in banana leaves from Oaxaca and Yucatán, or delicate, sweet yellow canarios (canaries), from central Mexico. Sampling all the various tamales is a true culinary adventure, because many of these exceptional versions are seldom found outside their region.
What are your favorite tamales and from which region of Mexico?