Cultural distillation beyond Tamales

After an exhausted working day, you finally can unwrap the steaming, freshly-made tamales, leaves wrapped in corn shucks, that have kept you get satisfied. What kind of tamales you eat? The fillings made from beef, chicken or pork in a red or green chile sauce, even including apple, sweet potato, pineapple, corn and cheese fillings. Beyond those materials are covered with the flavour of hometown, the memories of growth and ancestral customs. How do tamales connect with civilization?

Since time immemorial, corn and its life style defined the cultural rhythms, the labors, the sacred rituals and the celebrations of Indigenous America. Tamales have been shown to originate in Mesoamerica as early as 5000 to 8000 BC. Let’s make a brief introduction about the terminology of tamales, beginning with “teocintle”.

Although each civilization has different creation stories, the Maya, the Mexica-Azteca, the Olmeca and Tolteca all identified as people of corn. In Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica-Azteca and other indigenous people of Meso America, teo means god and cantle, is maize/corn. Teocintle is the God of Maize while Chicomecoatl is the Goddess of Maize. Corn, then is sacred. Before discussing tamales as sacred food, it is important to know that the term taml, and its plural form tamales, are the Hispanized of the form of the Nahuatl word nixtamalli, a compound of nixtli, meaning  ashes, and tamalli, meaning unformed corn dough⑴.

According to Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya People, indigenous women working collectively prepared countless varieties of delicious tamales for religious rites, festivals and celebrations to honor their gods. For Texcatlicpoca the Jaguar God, Mexica-Azteca women prepared tamales of beans and chiles ; of shrimp and chile for Huehuteotl, the Lord of Fire; and tamales of huitlacotche, served with cups of rich, frothy chocolate for Tlaloc, the Lord of Rain and Thunder, whose rain they needed for corn and all other crops. Besides, they used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers⑵.

“Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (General History of the Things in New Spain)”, as the European explorer ,Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun, mentioned tamales in his memoirs about the Aztec civilization. During 16th century the Spanish conquerors stamped on the New World (presently known today as Mexico), at the same time they were subdued by the dainties of the ancestral tribes.

At present, tamales become a popular food in Mesoamerica and the United Sites. In the meantime, Belize own various tamales like “collado” and “torteado” in Corozal and Orange Walk District of northern Belize. Belizean women usually wrap the masa in lacking plantain or banana leaves in place of corn husks that typical Mexican cooking. The stuffing of tamales are corn, masa, chick, pork, sauce and chili. Belizean women often gather together to make numerous tamales for special occasions, including a wedding, a funeral, or a birthday party. Making tamales in Belizean society is a symbol of collective efforts of the Belize community.

Tamales’ odor spread around the world. According to 2006 Guinness Book, there was an International Tamales Festival that was hold in Indio, California of U.S.A, it earned two Guinness World Records by making the world’s largest tamale that had been over 1 foot in diameter and 40 feet in length and attracting 120,000 persons in attendance.

The delicious taste of tamales was even recorded in the well-known blues song of 1937 “They’re Red Hot” by Robert Johnson.  The link as below :

“They’re Red Hot ” By ROBERT JOHNSON, 1936


⑴ Daniel Hoyer, Tamales, page 31, 2009

⑵ Ellen Riojas Clark and Carmen Tafolla, Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of  

     Civilization, page 150, 2011