Tamales 101

(everything you always wanted to know about tamales but were afraid to ask)

A tamale is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (corn-based dough), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.

Tamales have been traced back to the Ancient Aztec and Maya civilizations, who prepared them for feasts as early as the Preclassic period (1200–250 BC). Fun fact: Maya people called their corn tortillas and tamales both "utah".

Tamales originated as portable food, often to support armies, but also for hunters and travelers. Tamale use in the Inca Empire had been reported long before the Spanish visited the New World. Tamales became one of the representatives of Mexican culinary tradition in Europe, being one of the first samples of the culture the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain as proof of civilization.

In the pre-Columbian era, the Aztecs ate tamales with these ingredients: turkey, flamingo, frog, pocket gopher, rabbit, turkey eggs, bees, honey, fruits, maize flour, squash and beans, as well as with no filling. It should be noted that in modern times, most of these traditional pre-Columbian varieties focus-grouped very poorly in consumer taste tests compared to beef, pork, chicken and jalepeno cheese.

Tamales have been eaten in the United States since at least 1893, when they were featured at the World's Columbian Exposition. A tradition of roving tamale sellers was documented in early 20th-century blues music. They are the subject of the well-known 1937 blues/ragtime song "They're Red Hot" by Robert Johnson.

Today, tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, eaten as both breakfast and dinner, and often accompanied by hot atole or champurrado and arroz con leche (rice pudding) or maize-based beverages of indigenous origin. Street vendors can be seen serving them from huge, steaming, covered pots (tamaleras) or ollas. The cooking of tamales is traditionally done in batches of tens if not hundreds, and the ratio of filling to dough (and the coarseness of the filling) is a matter of preference.

At Chaparro's, we handcraft tamales from traditional ingredients. While many of our competitors have opted to replace the corn husk wrapper with plastic in a mechanized process, every tamale Chaparro's makes is hand-wrapped in a natural corn husk. Owner Maria Lourdes Chaparro personally samples a tamale from each batch to ensure it measures up to the standards of quality she expects and believes you have a right to expect as well.


Where to buy Chaparro's Tamales: