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What Are Tamales?

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If you’ve ever encountered Mexican cuisine, you’ve probably heard about tamales. But what is this wrapped dish, exactly? Tamales are a traditional dish from Mexico and parts of Central America. They are made with corn dough (‘masa’) and filling, wrapped in a husk, and steamed until cooked through. Once ready, you can unwrap the tamale, and then eat it by hand or on a plate.

Tamales are a great dish to have in your recipe toolbelt. They’re not too complicated to make, though they may take some time to complete, given that most versions require slow-cooking the filling. 

You can get an easy tamale recipe that stays true to the meal’s Mexican roots from Savor the Best!

The History of Tamales

While the exact origins of tamales are unclear, it’s believed that they date back to Mesoamerica as early as 8000 BC. At the time, tamales were much simpler, made only with beans and squash and roasted over a fire. This changed when Europeans brought new ingredients and cooking methods, particularly relating to meat, to the New World.

Tamales were widely consumed by hunters and warriors who took them into battle because they were conveniently portable (as made clear by their name, which is derived from the Nahuatl word for ‘wrapped food’).

Nowadays, tamales are often saved for special occasions and Mexican holidays like the Day of the Dead. They’re also popular during tamale season. 

When is tamale season, exactly? It ranges between November to February when many Mexican celebrations are held. That said, you can enjoy this dish at any time of the year!

Variations of Tamales

Mexican tamales are the best-known version of this traditional dish. However, Central and South American cultures also have their variations of it, adapted into their commonly used ingredients and style of cooking.

Venezuelans enjoy ‘hallacas;’ those in the Andes eat ‘humitas’ (made with ground fresh corn instead of masa harina); in the Yucatán and the Gulf Coast, tamales are made using banana leaves; in Morelia and Jalisco, they use fresh rather than dried corn.

Tamales also come with a variety of fillings like cheese, chilis, herbs, fish, or vegetables. Some are even sweet, containing chocolate, while others are cooked without any filling at all.

How to Make Tamales

To make tamales, you must understand its three key components: the masa, the filling, and the wrapper. Let’s break these down.


Masa is a key ingredient in Mexican cooking. This is dough made from masa harina (cornmeal or ground corn treated with water and lime, then dried and ground) mixed with a broth usually leftover from slow-cooking the filling), lard, and seasonings. Tamales are usually 60% masa and 40% filling.


While tamales can have no filling (i.e. ‘tamales nejos’), they’re usually filled with slow-cooked chicken or pork. They may also be filled with vegetables, cheeses, dried fruits, and olives, as well as sweet things for dessert tamales.


Tamales are often made with corn husks wrapped tightly around the masa and the filling. Other variations use agave leaves, banana leaves, or plantain leaves. These wrappers are preferred because they impart some extra flavor to the dish, but you can also make tamales with usual kitchen alternatives, like foil, in a pinch.

Easy Tamales Recipe From Savor the Best

If you’re looking for an easy-to-follow tamale recipe that still captures the essence of the traditional Mexican dish, check out Savor the Best’s guide on how to make tamales!

Want to know what sauce goes with tamales? Check out our latest post!

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