Assignment 2

Let’s Taco-bout Tamales

Mole Tamal from Taqueria Coatzingo

Throughout this course I have had the lovely experience of getting to eat and talk about some of my favorite Mexican dishes, such as guacamole, carnitas tacos, salsa, enchiladas, and margaritas. However, I have also gotten the chance to try a bunch of new dishes such as the birria taco and pan dulce. What may come as a surprise is that one of the new dishes that I encountered was actually a tamal. I have of course been aware of tamales at Mexican restaurants for a long time, however, I had never ordered one because I have always been a bit unsure about what they are. A couple weeks ago while at Taqueria Coatzingo, I tried the mole tamale and was absolutely blown away. I knew I loved mole, but the tamal itself I really enjoyed as well. It was unlike anything I had ever tried before, so I looked up a recipe to see how it was made, and it was so interesting, I definitely recommend taking a look for yourself!

  Map of Mesoamerica

Getting to experience a tamal for the first time was great, but I was a little nervous because I had no clue what to expect. I am going to admit a very embarrassing truth about myself, and that is that when I used to see tamales at restaurants, I thought that you ate them whole. During this class, I have learned that tamales are wrapped in corn husks, so now I know that is obviously not true. However, why not be open about it, because if I thought that, than other people probably did too. After I peeled the corn husk aside, I saw that a tamal looked like dough made from corn, stuffed with meat. The best way I could describe the dough, or the masa, was that it tasted similar to a corn tortilla that you would have with a taco, but it was a thicker, yet less dense compilation of it. There was much more moisture in the dough than there would be in a tortilla, which I can only assume was due to the steaming process that goes behind cooking a tamale. In the center, we ordered mole, but there were a ton of different options. It was different to anything I have ever had before because of the texture of the masa, but still so delicious. Since I loved the mole tamal so much, I went to YouTube to try to find a video so I could further understand how they were made. This video details every step and made me realize how complicated of a process making tamales and mole is, so it made me appreciate my meal even more!

After learning that I do in fact love tamales, I figured that it was about time that I did some research on tamales and learned what goes into creating this staple dish at Mexican restaurants. 

Mole Tamal (Taqueria Coatzingo)

Tamales have actually been around for an astonishingly long time. In fact, they are known to have “originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC” (“Tamale”).  Due to their reliance on corn-based foods, tamales became a very important part of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Latin American diet. They were known as “portable foods,” and helped to maintain the strength of armies and preserve food. In addition, since Aztecs, Mayans, and Tolteca were all people of corn, tamales played a large role in rituals in ceremonies as well (“Tamale”). 

One of the aspects of this class that is particularly appealing is that I am learning how growing up in different regions of the world changes the way that you eat so drastically. Growing up in Massachusetts, I ate primarily wheat-based breads and pastas. The only time I ever really had corn-based foods was in my cereals, chips, and when I went out to eat at Mexican restaurants. That being said, I am very lucky to live in New York City during an era where so many cultures are represented. I have the luxury of having the opportunity to try so many different foods. What I need to remember is that the reason that these foods exist is because somewhere along history, regions of people had to learn to cook with the resources that they had available to them. I remember in middle school, I had to do a school project on Mayans, and I thought it was so interesting how there was a god of maize (or corn). As a middle school student, I didn’t understand why an entire culture would worship a god for food.  Yet, in reality, it makes perfect sense to worship a god that helps to provide the resource that plays the largest role in sustaining your people. In reality, it is more surprising that in most cultures we don’t worship food and land because it is what allows us to survive. We live in a time where we can simply appreciate food without thinking about how it made its journey to our plate, or how others profit from it. They profit over people, including destroying land for profits, polluting the earth, and genetically modifying foods as a business model to privatize life. I think it is important to think about how certain dishes came to be and who is being affected to get it there. What better way to start than to research how tamales came to be.

Since tamales can be traced so far back in history, it is hard to say exactly how they were introduced into different regions. The one fact that can be  agreed upon is that throughout Mesoamerica, it became a food that civilizations and empires relied on. There are many different varieties that have stemmed from different areas of the world. There is the Guatemalan tamale, called the “Red Tamale,” that consists of  “corn dough stuffed with recado rojo, raisins, chili peppers, chicken, beef or pork wrapped in banana leaves” (“Tamale”). In Belize, there are green corn tamales . Cuba makes Mexican style tamales that implicates that Mexicans probably brought them over during the “musical exchange between Cuba and Mexico, between the 1920s and 2000s” (“Tamale”). In Trinidad and Tobago, as well as in parts of the Caribbean like Puerto Rico, tamales are called pastelles, made with cornmeal (or plantain in Puerto Rico) and stuffed with seasoned meat, and are often served during the winter holidays. (“Tamale”). These are just a few of the countless versions of tamales that can be found in the world. Since places in the world are becoming increasingly diverse, so is the food in those places. That means that when someone moves somewhere and introduces the tamale, that region is going to put their own spin on the dish, creating yet another version of this highly adaptable, and delicious treat.

Guatemalan “Red Tamale”

Green Corn Tamale from Belize

Pastelle – Trinidad and Tobago

I imagine that all of these regional varieties of tamales are amazing, but I would like to focus on the Mexican tamale. The most important ingredient of the Mexican tamal is masa. Masa is essentially a corn batter made from nixtamalized corn. “Nixtamal (nixtamalado) is dried maize which has been lime treated and partially cooked. This cooked corn can now be used whole to make pozole (hominy) or it can be ground and made into dough for tortillas (called masa) or used for masa to make fresh tamales” (GourmetSleuth). Sometimes there will be chile added to the mixture which will result in the red tint that you see in some tamales and tortillas. Mexican tamales are wrapped in corn husks and then steamed, or sometimes if they have gotten cold, people will heat them up by frying them without the hus.  When you go to a Mexican restaurant you are going to see many different options for meat and cheese fillings – chicken, pork, beef, beans, vegetarian, etc. – just as you do on other parts of the menu such as in the taco and enchilada section. That is one of the great aspects of Mexican food, it really is great with whatever meat or protein that you choose. I have come to learn in this class that one of the reasons I have always loved Mexican food so much is because of the corn base for many of the recipes. I have always loved corn tortillas and enchiladas, and I never knew that the quality of how good my enchilada was had to do with the masa.

  The process of nixtamalization

Tamales steaming

Another very interesting fact about the history of the tamal, is that it was one of the first Mexican dishes to be adopted by Americans. In Planet Taco, Jeffrey Pilcher discusses how chili and tamales were the dishes that American business men first sold in order to gain a profit from Mexican food and culture. He describes this industrialization in regards to the phrase “hot tamale”:

Such ambivalent images, dangerous and alluring spurred the industrialization of Mexican food by non-Mexican businessmen, who made fortunes selling chili powder, canned chili, and other purportedly hygienic knockoffs as novelties for the mass market. By the 1920s, parallel commercial networks crossed the continent to supply two distinct markets: canned chili and tamales for mainstream housewives eager for something new, and dried chiles and chocolates for migrant workers hungry for a taste of home” (Pilcher, 30).

Looking back, I am surprised that I hadn’t ever tried a tamal, because it was introduced in American culture as early as the 1920s. I think it is very interesting that it was a staple for housewives, because now I think that people think of it as a more authentic dish that has to be prepared properly. The recipes and videos above prove how complex of a task it is, and I find it very hard to believe that housewives in the 1920s were cooking masa and spending hours preparing mole. I suppose it is probably for the best that the first tamal that I tried was not a from a “hygienic” frozen dinner. After researching the tamal, I have learned that one of the greatest aspects of the dish is that it changes depending on which country it is from. By just branding a tamal as Mexican and mass producing it for profit, it completely takes away from how diverse and culturally ingrained the dish is – which is what makes it so special and delicious.

As enjoyable as it is to try a new food, it is just as enjoyable to learn where that food came from. Throughout my research and class discussion, I have learned that tamales are a dish that can be made in so many ways. Different people, families, and regions all make tamales their own way. However, the one common denominator is the corn. Although I am still not an expert on tamales, I have become fairly confident that if you did not at least start the process with nixtamalized corn, then it is not a tamale. Not to mention, if you do not cook it as nixtamal, you can get sick. Once the masa is created, there is a lot of creative freedom – whether that means using chicken instead of beef, beans, or peppers, or wrapping it in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk. 

During this course I have struggled with the idea of authenticity in food. If you look at a food like a tamale where there is so much variation, how can you tell if what you are eating is authentic? And the answer is that you can’t. All you can do is appreciate whoever brought the tamale (or whatever regional food of your choosing) to wherever you are. If a food is delicious, then maybe it doesn’t matter who claims the food. If a bunch of different cultures are blending into a dish, then all the better. However, my gratitude does go out to the mesoamericans for creating masa and bringing the joy that is corn tortillas and tamales to New York City somewhere along the way.