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Traditional Mexican tamales

Aztec advances (13): tamales

This is the thirteenth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). One of the oldest and most traditional of Mexican foods, some have suggested the humble tamal could be one of the world’s very first ‘convenience foods’... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore).

Pic 1: A girl offers tamales in a bowl (arrowed) to the Maya maize god; part of the western wall mural at San Bartolo, Guatemala. Illustration by Heather Hurst
Pic 1: A girl offers tamales in a bowl (arrowed) to the Maya maize god; part of the western wall mural at San Bartolo, Guatemala. Illustration by Heather Hurst (Click on image to enlarge)

‘A tamale consists of a [maize] dough that has been wrapped around a filling and steamed. Tamales are a popular part of Mexican and southwestern [USA] cuisine. The Maya... were probably the first Mesoamericans to eat them. The Aztec... also ate tamales, as did the Inca...
’Amaranth tamales were used as offerings to the Aztec gods, including the god of fire Xiuhtecuhtli. Because the tamales were a part of indigenous religion, the Catholic church banned them, along with amaranth itself, shortly after conquest...’
Whilst physical evidence for tamale consumption in ancient Mesoamerica is scarce, there are a good number of images in murals, ceramics, codices and other art forms. One of the oldest - dating from 100 BCE - comes from the spectacular murals at San Bartolo in Guatemala, discovered in 2001 by a team led by William Saturno (a researcher for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology) (pic 1).

Pic 2: Maya representations of tamales and tortillas: details from an early Teotihuacan-style painted bowl (bottom L) and a mural by Rino Lazo celebrating maize (top L). Note the same phonetic sign and hieroglyph ‘waaj’ applies to both foods
Pic 2: Maya representations of tamales and tortillas: details from an early Teotihuacan-style painted bowl (bottom L) and a mural by Rino Lazo celebrating maize (top L). Note the same phonetic sign and hieroglyph ‘waaj’ applies to both foods (Click on image to enlarge)

Contrary to popular belief, the now ubiquitous tortilla wasn’t always the most common way of consuming maize prior to the Spanish invasion. There is a surprising lack of evidence for the use of the traditional comal (griddle) (on which tortillas are cooked) amongst the ancient Maya, whereas iconographic evidence for tamales is far more widespread. Of course that doesn’t rule out the cooking of tortillas by other means, but it seems safe to assume that tamales ‘led the way’, at least for the Maya and probably at Teotihuacan and amongst other early cultures. The waters are further muddied by the fact that the Classical Mayan term waaj can refer to either a tamale or a tortilla! At the same time this whole issue is perhaps a little spurious, as, in Sophie Coe’s words, ‘tortillas and tamales are made of the same dough and intergrade to such an extent that it is sometimes difficult to recognise which of the two has been produced from a particular recipe.’

Pic 3: Freshly harvested ears of young green maize, known in Mexico as ‘elotes’
Pic 3: Freshly harvested ears of young green maize, known in Mexico as ‘elotes’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Coe goes on to write that however prepared, ‘whether on a stone slab, on or under the ashes of the cooking fire, on a comal, wrapped in leaves and steamed, wrapped in leaves and toasted on the comal or on the coals, or any other method, it was the composition of the dough which was the most important matter...’
The best tamales are said to be those prepared during the rainy season, with ripe, green, tender ‘young’ maize, which needs no soaking or boiling and can be ground immediately; this would though have been a relatively rare seasonal delicacy. In the main, tamales would have been made with ‘nixtamalized’ corn (learn more from the link below) that has been soaked in lime, rendering it easier to grind and far more nutritious. Once ground, seasonings could be added such as chiles, honey, toasted squash seeds, and achiote. The dough would then be cooked, wrapped in the leaves of bananas, plantains or maize husks.

Pic 4: A Maya ruler speaks to an attendant kneeling before him and before a three-legged offering bowl containing tamales in sauce. Maya polychrome vase (Kerr 6418)
Pic 4: A Maya ruler speaks to an attendant kneeling before him and before a three-legged offering bowl containing tamales in sauce. Maya polychrome vase (Kerr 6418) (Click on image to enlarge)

Fillings could include beans, toasted squash seeds, meat, fish and fowl stews, flowers, greens, egg yolks, quail, and more. After filling, it would be cooked - traditionally though not exclusively by steaming. Finally, tamales were (and still are) tied closed using thin strips of thread taken from the same leaves used to wrap the contents. Wrapped, protected, dry and secure, the tamale proved an ideal - and nutritious - portable foodstuff that could be carried by farmers and workmen far from home: a convenience food par excellence. Coe records that ‘for travellers special tamales were prepared which we are told could keep up to twenty days...’
Were they just for common folk? By no means. Examples abound of imagery depicting nobles and rulers being served tamales (pic 4).

Pic 5: A dish with three tamales (L), and a single turkey tamal (above R) and iguana tamal (below R); illustration based on Codex Dresden pl. 34
Pic 5: A dish with three tamales (L), and a single turkey tamal (above R) and iguana tamal (below R); illustration based on Codex Dresden pl. 34 (Click on image to enlarge)

If we’re fortunate to have ample imagery showing tamales among the ancient Maya, we have vastly more when it comes to the Mexica (Aztecs), whose language Nahuatl includes over thirty composite words in which tamalli is the core element (Santamaría 1978).
Thanks to the work of the Franciscan friar and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún and his team of Nahua artists and informants, the Florentine Codex lists over forty different shapes and fillings for tamales (Bray 1968), and they feature in at least seven of the eighteen ‘monthly’ festivals (Morán 2016).
The Codex dedicates two lengthy paragraphs (in Book X) to listing the range in terms of shapes, cooking methods and fillings: from ‘narrow’ to ‘wide’, from ‘pointed’ to ‘roll-shaped’, from ‘braised’ to ‘cooked in an olla’, and from rabbit to fruit, turkey to axolotl, fish to frog, honey to - wait for it - ‘water worm excrement’...

Pic 6: A basked of tamales: Codex Mendoza, fol. 68r (detail)
Pic 6: A basked of tamales: Codex Mendoza, fol. 68r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Tamales feature in codex iconography. Picture 6 shows a basketful of tamales; Berdan and Anawalt (1997) explain the method of depiction as follows: ‘Probably the twisting of the ends of the cornhusks to secure the contents within is what is indicated by the curved line extending down into the white circles illustrated here’.
Whilst plain tamales seem to have been worth a single cocoa bean each, we know that ‘special’ tamales were prepared as ‘foods the lords ate’ and were associated with some of the great monthly feasts - ‘red tamales with beans forming a sea shell on top... tamales of meat cooked with maize softened in lime and wood ashes, and yellow chilli, sprinkled with seeds, roast turkey hen, roast quail...’
Three festivals in the calendar round actually include the word tamale in the festival name. One in particular, held in the last (18th.) month, Izcalli, stands out: Uauhquiltamalcualiztli - ‘The Eating of Tamales Stuffed With Amaranth Greens’, dedicated to Ixcozauhqui.

Pic 7: The offering of tamales in one of the monthly Aztec festivals; Codex Borbonicus, fol. 25 (detail)
Pic 7: The offering of tamales in one of the monthly Aztec festivals; Codex Borbonicus, fol. 25 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica described these tamales of amaranth greens as ‘precious green stone tamales’ (chalchiuhtamalli). Stuffed too with chillies (‘They sat burning their mouths’), they were the focus of an impressive ceremony involving the ritual giving and eating of tamales by the populace at large (‘Everywhere [the custom] was general; it was everywhere; nowhere was it left out. In each house, and in each city, they indeed consumed two [tamales] when there was the making of tamales stuffed with amaranth greens.’)
’And there was giving of them to one another... on the part of each one... there was giving in company; there was giving among themselves; there was giving to friends... there was no giving in ill will; there was giving in gladness. And she who first cooked her tamales stuffed with amaranth greens then went to give them to [those of] houses like hers, her neighbours, those who lived in nearby houses...’

Pic 8: The sharing of tamales in honour of Ixcozauhqui; Florentine Codex Book II
Pic 8: The sharing of tamales in honour of Ixcozauhqui; Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

In typical Mexica fashion, though, excess was NOT permitted - and would be punished severely. Book II of the Florentine Codex describes another festival (Huey Tecuilhuitl, the eighth month, at the end of the lean, dry season) during which food and drink were distributed particularly amongst the poor for anything up to seven days in a row. ‘The ruler was pleased to show benevolence to... the common folk. For indeed there was much hunger; at this time dried grains of maize were costly...’ First the rich maize drink atole was given away, and citizens brought gourd bowls for the purpose (the poorest even gathered the thick gruel in their clothing). Then the tamales, but with a restriction: the servers would distribute them, on the condition that ‘As many tamales as he could take hold of [with one hand], all those did he give him’. Intriguingly, custom dictated that you had to use your left hand to hold the tamales.

Pic 9: Topping the maize dough with rich chilli sauce prior to wrapping the tamal: Mestizo Restaurant, London
Pic 9: Topping the maize dough with rich chilli sauce prior to wrapping the tamal: Mestizo Restaurant, London  (Click on image to enlarge)

Similarly, at Mexica weddings the participants could only eat four mouthfuls of tamales (five was universally considered excess). Prior to the big event, Aztec women would commit to making tamales for two-three consecutive days: ‘All night they were occupied... they slept very little’ (Florentine Codex Book XI).
Finally, the Codex notes (Book V, Appendix) that tamales were such a central part of Aztec life that they were embedded in folk superstition: it was believed to be ‘extremely unwise’ to eat a tamale that had stuck to the cooking pot; break the taboo and the consequences were catastrophic - the father of the house would very likely miss a vital shot or blow in battle and die, and his wife would never be able to bear children. ‘If she became pregnant, the child would cling to her womb just as the tamale adhered to the pot, it would die there.’

Pic 10: Seller of tamales; Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 10: Seller of tamales; Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

Still today the tamal features in many popular sayings, refrains, folk songs and poems, such as this one from the Tabasco region, which is tinged with the idea of pre-destiny:-
Al que nació para tamal, del cielo le caen las hojas.

THANKS to Marysol and the Head Chef Dalcy at London’s great Mestizo restaurant for allowing us to photograph them preparing for their annual week-long Tamales Festival.

Sources/further information:-
• Coe, Sophie D. (1994): America’s First Cuisines, University of Texas Press
• ‘Los Tamales en México: Panorama Visual’, Arqueología Mexicana special edition no. 76, October 2017, Mexico DF
• Morán, Elizabeth (2016): Sacred Consumption: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art and Culture, University of Texas Press
• Santamaría F.J. (1978): Diccionario de Mejicanismos, Editorial Porrua, Mexico DF
• Sahagún, B. de (1979): Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain Books 2, 10 & 11 (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General de Las Cosas de La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson, University of Utah Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico
• Berdan, F. and Rieff Anawalt, P. (1997) The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press
• Bray, Warwick (1987): Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Dorset Press/B. T. Batsford Ltd.

Pic 11: Steamed tamales, Mestizo restaurant, London
Pic 11: Steamed tamales, Mestizo restaurant, London (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main, pic 2 (top L), 3, 9 & 11: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: public domain
• Pic 2 (bottom L): illustration scanned from Arqueología Mexicana (see above); glyphs (R) scanned from Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs by John Montgomery, Hippocrene Books, New York, 2002
• Pic 4: image courtesy of, thanks to and © Justin Kerr, mayavase.com
• Pic 5: original image downloaded from http://www.famsi.org/research/graz/dresdensis/img_page34.html
• Pic 6: image scanned from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, Waterlow & Sons, London, 1938
• Pic 7: image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Borbonicus (ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974)
• Pix 8 & 10: images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 20th 2020

emoticon Aztec Limerick no. 19 (Ode to Mexica superstition)
If a tamale should stick to the pot
Eat it, if pregnant, do NOT -
The babe in your womb
Will stick in its tomb,
And your husband may take his last shot.

‘Aztec advances (9): nixtamalization of corn’

Good Eats video ‘Tamale Never Dies’ - recommended
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