RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.
In the Latinx household, there is a highly contentious question that creates seemingly perennial divides between family and friends: what is more important to the widely beloved tamal, the masa or its fillings?
The humble tamal is a steamed pocket of masa (corn dough), traditionally filled with meat marinated in mole or salsa, and encased in a corn husk. The word originates from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word “tamalli”, meaning “wrapped”.1 Claudia Alarcon, a scholar of Latin American studies, also attributes the phonetic pronunciation of the Mayan glyph for tamal to mean “sustenance”.2 Despite disagreements over the significance of its contents, at least one claim stands true: the tamal is so much more than the sum of its parts.
The history of the tamal is interlaced with that of maize. It is believed that maize (i.e., corn) began its transformation to its current form in 8000 B.C.E from the wild grain teosinte.3 Early indigenous people were able to settle as maize became readily available. These early Central Americans would one day form the Toltec, Olmec, and Aztec empires, the precursors of the Mexican people, and the Mayan civilisation, the foundation of the country of Guatemala.
Like most technology, tamales were born from wartime demands. Around 7000 B.C.E., the predecessors of these societies required a portable food for supporting their armies and hunting.4,5 Since the tamal comes with a built-in protective covering, it naturally fulfilled this role. The tamal then prospered with the ascent of each empire, as a commodity for regular consumption and ritual use. And, although these civilisations developed in different regions and vastly different eras, they were joined through their relationship to corn and their enjoyment of the tamal.
Shared Central American myths and celebrations show that tamales permeate divides of time and location. The Olmec, Toltec, and Mayan civilisations maintain the same creation myths that human flesh is formed from corn.6 Food was integral to the worship of their deities, and since tamales are made using masa, which represents human flesh, they were regularly used for ritual sacrifice.7 For example, the Maya sacrificed maize products such as tortillas and tamales at rain festivals.8 Similarly, the Aztecs utilised specific tamals to praise their deities— bean tamales for honouring the jaguar deity Texcatlicpoca, shrimp tamales as offerings to the Huehueteotl Lord of Fire, and bean and honey tamales for the celebration of Xipe Totec, the god of death and rebirth.9 All of these traditions, along with tamales, however, would change after the Spanish colonisation of the Maya and Aztecs in the 16th century C.E..
Spanish conquest led to the decimation of the ancient empires of the New World. However, the end of these societies did not mean the end of their cultures. As Catholicism spread throughout Central and South America with the arrival of the Spanish, tamales would be appropriated for Christian festivals in lieu of their original ritualistic purposes.10 This manifests more specifically in how tamales are now enjoyed during the Christmas season.
Along with the celebration, change came the introduction of new ingredients to the traditional tamal, as new foods were brought to Central and South America through the Columbian Exchange. The iguana, turkey, flamingo, frog, axolotl, pocket gopher, rabbit, fish, honey, fruits, squash, and beans used in the pre-colonial era would be traded or used in addition to beef, chicken, pork, olives, onions, cheese, and sugar.11 The origins of these Old World foods are not entirely Spanish. For instance, chicken, sugar, and pork have Southeast Asian origins, and olives come from Anatolia.12,13,14 Despite the changes to Latin American cultures from these multicultural exchanges, the Spanish were not able to destroy the tamale making process and the dish’s importance to Latin American people.
Tamal making remained the laborious, female-driven, and culturally significant process it had always been. Tamaladas, or tamale making parties, maintain their presence in Latinx culture. During these modern familial and community centred celebrations, women emulate similar practices to what they may have performed in ancient Meso-American society.15 Young girls were expected to observe and learn the actions of their mothers, specifically in the making of masa.
Alongside largely unchanged tamal-making traditions, its cooking process has similarly persisted. Specifically, nixtamalization has remained a necessity for masa production. Nixtamalization, speculated to have originated in 8000 B.C.E, is a process in which slaked lime (limestone) and water are added to maize to create an alkaline solution that softens and removes the pericarp of the corn kernel, producing masa.16,17 This process allows for niacin, an essential human nutrient and the reason for the typical yellowish corn colour, to be formed in masa.18 The chemical reaction also develops a buttery, earthy flavor in the masa with the release of compound 2-aminoacetophenone from the softened corn kernel. The survival of nixtamalization is a significant one, as wheat brought from Europe altered the eating habits of the people of North, Central, and South America. Although wheat permeated food products through food items like tortillas, empanadas, and pastries, the grain was never able to conquer the tamal.19 Its association with the Spanish transformed maize into a product for poor masses, leading to the survival of masa nixtamalization and its continued use in the tamal.20
While different tamales share similar cooking processes, its international spread and popularity have led to changes in the unassuming delicacy. Foreign cultures have made the tamal their own, using local ingredients such as banana leaves, rice flour, and plantains to alter the Mexican staple. For example, hallacas, a Venezuelan dish also enjoyed during Christmas, is similar to the tamal but is steamed using plantain leaves.21 Similarly, the pastele of Puerto Rico, which was believed to have been developed from the indigenous of Venezuela, is a sweet tamale made from bananas, yucca, or taro masa in place of maize.22 The Spanish also brought tamales to the Philippines during the country’s colonization in 1521 C.E..23 Thus, the Filipino Binaki tamal, made from corn masa, and bubuto, a tamal made from rice flour, can also be interpreted as having origins in Mexican tamales.24 In the 1920s, musical exchanges between Mexico and Cuba brought the tamal to the Caribbean island as well.25
While tamales are distinctly Mexican, dishes akin to the tamal are known to have emerged without the influence of the Latin American delicacy. For example, Vietnam’s bánh bột lọc, a dumpling made from tapioca starch stuffed with shrimp and pork, and the zongzi of China, a sticky rice dumpling, are believed to be endogenous to the nations that claim ownership.26,27 Similar to tamales, these products are steamed in banana leaves and bamboo leaves respectively. Although the tamal has taken many forms, its identity still lies with the people of Meso-America. For Latinx people, tamales are not simply sustenance; they are packages containing the history, myths, and culture of Latin American people.
Alarcon, Claudia. “A Brief History Of Tamales–Claudia Alarcon.” YouTube. YouTube, January 17, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WPMXyp9-5s.
In this video, Claudia Alarcon presents her research on the origins of the tamal at the University of Texas. Her study provides an in-depth description of the etymology and connections between Meso-American people vis-a-vis the tamal. Specifically, she shows the significance of the tamal by reviewing the definition of its hieroglyph. Additionally, she tracks the movement of ingredients across the Atlantic, displaying traceable pathways for each foodstuff.
Barksdale, Nate. “What Goes Into a Hot Tamale?” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 14, 2014. https://www.history.com/news/what-goes-into-a-hot-tamale.
This article provides a succinct history of tamales. In addition to blueprinting the cultivation of the tamal, this piece showed its uses within ritual practices. Specifically, it referenced the various types of early tamals and each of the gods they were sacrificed to. Ultimately, this elucidated the complexity and significance of the tamal to the ancient cultures of Meso-America.
Clark, Ellen Riojas., and Carmen Tafolla. Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization: Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun. San Antonio, TX: Wings Press, 2011.
This article showcased a brief history of the tamal in addition to referencing the importance of corn; however, its most notable addition was information vis-a-vis the role of women in tamal making. The brief article describes the practice of tamal making in connection to women. Additionally, it also acts as a reference for the place of tamales regarding ritual practice.
Huff, Leah A. “Sacred Sustenance: Maize, Storytelling, and a Maya Sense of Place.” Journal of Latin American Geography 5, no. 1 (2006): 79–96. https://doi.org/10.1353/lag.2006.0006.
This report expounded upon the cultural significance of the maize. For instance, it used the maize to showcase the use of storytelling for the Mayan people. Additionally, it spoke to the creation myths of the Maya, showing the extent to which maize is ingrained within the Mayan identity.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. ¡Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.
This work speaks to the importance of maize, and therefore the tamal, to ancient Mexican civilisations. It expounds upon the ritual uses in the Toltec, Olmec, and Aztec civilisations and tells how they were altered as a result of the Spanish. Moreover, it carries the legend of the tamal into modern-day, showing the continued connection between conventional tamal making and that of antiquity.
Sefa-Dedeh, Samuel, Beatrice Cornelius, Esther Sakyi-Dawson, and Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa. “Effect of Nixtamalization on the Chemical and Functional Properties of Maize.” Food Chemistry 86, no. 3 (2004): 317–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2003.08.033.’
This study shows the chemistry of nixtamalization. In doing so, it displays the various health benefits that result from the process, such as the addition of niacin to masa. Ultimately, this history of maize concerning the foundation of the nixtamalization method as it was nearly essential to the foundation of the empires of Meso-America.
Written by Thomas Martinez.
1 Ellen Riojas. Clark and Carmen Tafolla, Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization: Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun (San Antonio, TX: Wings Press, 2011)
2 Claudia Alarcon, “A Brief History Of Tamales–Claudia Alarcon,” YouTube (YouTube, January 17, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WPMXyp9-5s)
3 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Teosinte,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., August 18, 2016), https://www.britannica.com/plant/teosinte)
4 Nate Barksdale, “What Goes Into a Hot Tamale?,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, November 14, 2014), https://www.history.com/news/what-goes-into-a-hot-tamale)
5 Genevieve Robitaille, “Tamales: A Brief History,” Medium (Medium, December 24, 2016), https://medium.com/@GenRobitaille/tamales-a-brief-history-48c480f5f1d4)
6 M Dustin Knepp, “Spreading Tradition: A History of Tamal- Making and Its …,” SPREADING TRADITION (University of Central Arkansas), accessed December 2, 2019, http://www.cromrev.com/volumes/vol33/11-vol33-Knepp.pdf)
7 Claudia Alarcon, “A Brief History Of Tamales–Claudia Alarcon,” YouTube (YouTube, January 17, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WPMXyp9-5s)
8 Nate Barksdale, “What Goes Into a Hot Tamale?,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, November 14, 2014), https://www.history.com/news/what-goes-into-a-hot-tamale)
9 Nate Barksdale, “What Goes Into a Hot Tamale?,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, November 14, 2014), https://www.history.com/news/what-goes-into-a-hot-tamale)
10 Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008))
11 Claudia Alarcon, “A Brief History Of Tamales–Claudia Alarcon,” YouTube (YouTube, January 17, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WPMXyp9-5s)
12 “History of the Olive,” History of the Olive | The Olive Oil Source, accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.oliveoilsource.com/page/history-olive)
13 “History of Sugar,” The Sugar Association, accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.sugar.org/sugar/history/)
14 Giuffra et al., “The Origin of the Domestic Pig: Independent Domestication and Subsequent Introgression,” Genetics (Genetics, April 1, 2000), https://www.genetics.org/content/154/4/1785)
15 Leah A. Huff, “Sacred Sustenance: Maize, Storytelling, and a Maya Sense of Place,” Journal of Latin American Geography 5, no. 1 (2006): pp. 79-96, https://doi.org/10.1353/lag.2006.0006)
16 Ellen Riojas. Clark and Carmen Tafolla, Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization: Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun (San Antonio, TX: Wings Press, 2011))
17 Samuel Sefa-Dedeh et al., “Effect of Nixtamalization on the Chemical and Functional Properties of Maize,” Food Chemistry 86, no. 3 (2004): pp. 317-324, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2003.08.033)
19 Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008))
20 Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008))
21 “Tamale,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, November 24, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamale)
23 Saleah Blancaflor, “120 Years after Philippine Independence from Spain, Hispanic Influence Remains,” NBCNews.com
24 Raymund, “Filipino Tamales (Bubuto) – Ang Sarap,” Ang Sarap (A Tagalog word for “It’s Delicious”), September 27, 2016, https://www.angsarap.net/2016/10/12/filipino-tamales-bubuto/)
25 “Tamale,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, November 24, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamale)
26 “Bánh Bột Lọc,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, August 19, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bánh_bột_lọc)
27“Zongzi,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, December 1, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zongzi)