Tamales – Traditional Pre-Columbian Food of the Americas


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(photo) Traditional Mexican Tamales and Menudo

Last night was Christmas and I spent it with my brother’s family. Since we have the same (Black American) Dad and different Mom’s (mine is Black/Asian his is Mexican), we’re technically “half-siblings”. One time, I referred to him as my half brother and he chewed me out about it! Never again. It didn’t feel right to introduce him that way anyway.

The first time that I shared a Christmas with my brother’s family (a decade ago) I came hungry and waited patiently for the big meal. The house was packed with about 45 people across 4 or 6 generations.  They were all Mexican and Chicano/a. I kept waiting and waiting for the food and munched on the appetizer but didn’t want to get full. After about 4 hours, I shyly asked my brother when was the meal coming?  He started laughing loudly and told all of the family that I was waiting for the meal. Then they all started laughing at me. Laughing is an understatement. The household  was ROARING.  Then my brother explained that what I thought was an appetizer–THE TAMALES– these were actually the dinner.

There were big metal buckets of tamales. These were dried leaf wrappers stuffed with a grain that tastes like grits with a center of savory, lean stewed meat, cheese, chilies, or pineapples.  There were easily hundreds of tamales that first night that I had them. Since then, I grab them on the street from any person selling them.  Men, women, light mexican and black mexican– I don’t discriminate. I’ll buy them from the back of a car or even out of a shopping cart. I buy them at hole in the wall restaurants or fancy restaurants and farmer’s markets.  The main difference between the street tamales (more traditional) is that the traditional ones are more petite and there’s a perfect balance between masa (hominy the same grain as grits) and the meat.

The tamales made for non-mexican Americans are often monstrously large or they are made to be sweet instead of wholesome and savory.  Also, sometimes the masa doesn’t hold together very well. I suppose it’s because the lard gets skipped. Traditional Mexican cooks say the masa wont fluff right without it.

Here’s a recipe I googled that explains how to make tamales without lard.


I wonder if the no-lard tamales really work? My guess is that they come closer to tasting like Central American or Panamanian tamales because those tend to have softer masa that’s flavorful, juicy, and brothy.


My mother’s brother offered to show me how to make a tamales. I’m thinking about trying it next Christmas.I’d like to try some traditional and some non-traditional. I want to experiment with making some with masa and some with stone-ground grits. I wonder if I can do some soul-food inspired tamales?  Wouldn’t it be interesting to stuff some with yam or sweet potato and meat also?

For food history nerds like me, this may be an interesting fact…tamales are a pre-Columbus Native Peoples of the America’s indigenous food. The recipes may be at least 10,000 years old!  I’m sure that back in those times, people burned so many calories a day that if they used lard, it wouldn’t clog their arteries because they were living active lifestyles instead of sitting in cars, in front of TVs. or sitting at desks all day long.

Native History of the Tamal



(photo) Minature Traditional Mexican Ceramic/Pottery “Toy” Cooking Set

Incidentally, Trader Joe’s frozen tamales, (just like mostly everything at Trader Joe’s) are really, really good.  A very good healthy alternative to the traditional tamale.


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