CAREFULLY WRAPPED FOOD: A MULTICULTURAL FAMILY. Tamalli, humita, bubuto, nacatamal, banaha, hallaca, pasteles en hoja...  

Kapampangan bubuto, tamal cubano, and Mexican tamales class.

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My favorite translation of the Náhuatl word tamalli or ‘tamal’, and I believe the most accurate, is: envuelto cuidadoso[1]. It was proposed by late historian and Mexican food scholar, Guadalupe Pérez San Vicente, in her Repertorio de tamales for the brilliant compilation Cocina Indígena y Popular, and translates to something like “careful wrapping”. It is short and simple, yet it says everything there is to know about tamales; what they are, in essence: bundles of goodness, but it also lets you infer that their craft involves dedication and creativity since nothing is conclusively written about what they can guard in their interior (even babies can become “tamalitos” when rolled into the rebozos of their abuelas).

Tamales can be sweet or savory, they can be molded into different kinds of vessels and in a number of ways, and contain a universe of ingredients inside, which can be held together with a base of corn masa, but not exclusively. Since pre-colonial times, there have existed versions of tamalli without masa, like the nanacatamalli, for example, which are filled with only wild mushrooms (and probably some herbs). There are also later tamales made with masa from Silk Route-introduced ingredients, like grounded rice or almonds. Tamales not only benefited from this maritime exchange in terms of flavor and richness —like the brilliant incorporation of lard into the dough— but they also traveled to other Spanish colonies, across the Americas and as far as the Philippines and Guam, where they were assimilated into local cultures and flourished into new varieties —such as the Kapampangan “bubuto”, which is usually made with rice flour, coconut milk, peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, and chicken, pork or shrimp— (recipe below).

It remains a mystery though, where tamales originated. It is commonly assumed that it was in México, in part because of their evident penetration in the culture (in her book, San Vicente identifies 370 kinds of tamales —along with their recipes, places of origin, and authors, in some cases— but even she knew she fell short; tamales are endless), and also for the fact that it is the place where corn was domesticated 10 000 years ago, and it would seem likely for its culinary uses to have developed alongside. However, the oldest vestiges of any form of tamal are said to have been found further south, in the Supe Valley, 200 km north of Lima, Perú. According to Peruvian anthropologist Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, “humitas” —a form of fresh-corn-based tamal— were already being made in the pre-Incan city of Caral 5000 years ago[2].

So, it is likely that we will never figure out whose brilliant idea it was to pack food into leaves and cook it, or where it happened, or if it befell in more than one place at the same time. What we could say with more certainty is that somewhere between the lands of the antecessors of Incas and the Olmecas, around the umbilical center of the Mesoamerican universe, tamales were conceived, and from there, they started their own migratory journey and spread in multiple directions.

Through the years, Tamalli have fallen into the hands of mindful cocineras everywhere, who have wisely picked the best ingredients available, wrap them inside their interiors, and led them to develop a certain character. Tamales can reflect the background of a family or the identity of a nation. They have their own intepretation mestizaje packed inside.

One should know better, for example, when opening a tamal de frijol from Oaxaca, not to be fooled by its simplicity, that by reading into the vein-shaped lines left in its skin by the flagrant avocado leaf detached from its surface, you can tell how ancient it is, probably one of the first tamales that ever existed (according to Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, this kind of tamales were popular in the table of Aztec rulers and had snail-shaped figures painted on the masa with the beans[3]); or that in the richness of ingredients stuffed into “hallacas” —pork, chicken, beef, capers, raisins, olives, and all kinds of vegetables and spices, depending on the region— lies in the unlimited imagination of an empty stomach, since they were born as left-over food made by slaves; or that in the north of Nicaragua, Sunday mornings smell like freshly-grounded native coffee and nacatamales, cooked for up to 4 hours, so that the carne de chancho (or ‘pork’) —which is packed in raw (in contrast, for example, with Cuban tamales which are filled with well-cooked, Caribbean-spiced, golden chunks of masitas and chicharrón)— cooks until it falls apart as you unfold the banana leaf; or that the use of achiote (‘annatto’ or onoto) in tamales ties a number of culinary traditions from the Yucatán peninsula, to Central America, some parts of South America, around the Caribbean (where tamales are known as “pasteles en hoja” and the masa is usually made with green bananas, taro, yams, and pumpkin), and all the way to South Pacific Asia; or that in the northwest of Argentina, tamales —which are commonly filled with carne de vaca (or ‘beef’) and in some cases can include pureed zapallo (or ‘squash’) in the masa— are so rooted in the culinary traditions of certain communities, that they compete in popularity with empanadas; or that in Vallecaucana region of Colombia, tamales, potatoes, and rice go beautifully together and are in fact, the perfect carbohydrate trifecta to provide a person’s body with sufficient energy to salsa their way through Novenas (or ‘posadas’, in México), Christmas, and New Year’s; or that different family recipe-tamales are a staple dish in both Thanksgiving and Christmas tables across the United States, including in non-Latin households (tamales, actually, have a very long history in the US, since Native-American communities have been making them for centuries; depending on the region, some of these recipes —that are traditionally made with native blue corn— might have some Cajun and Creole or Mexican culinary influences); and the examples could go on and on…     

Since pre-colonial times, tamales have been as good a sources of sustenance as they are of income, Bernardino de Sahagún also described tamales merchants in his writings: She who is appointed to making tamales or buys them from others to sell them accustoms to offer them in various ways and types, be it from fish, frog, or chicken, or any other way […]. There are quite a few success stories that start with tamales nowadays; they have the ability to turn a poor, indigenous, immigrant woman, tirelessly working from door to door or in a street corner (while at constant risk of being detained by authorities), into an urban food-selling queen —such are the cases of Alicia Villanueva in San Francisco’s Bay Area or of Evelia Coyotzi in Queens, NY, among many others—.

Carefully wrapped foods have sustained human beings in a number of ways for thousands of years; they nurture bodies as well as spirits and provide people of different backgrounds with a sense of belonging, of time, and of place. In Mexico City, the smell of burnt wood coming out of anafres (wood stoves) heating tamaleras in every corner, as the sun rises, tell us it is time to wake up and get moving, but not before putting our teeth into a guajolota (or ‘torta de tamal’) to bring our soul back to our body as we wash it down with a sip of heart-warming atole. And as the day is about to end, bicycle-powered loudspeakers circle around the city announcing that our ricos tamales oaxaqueños calientitos have arrived to replenish our stomachs after a day of hard work and wish us good-night sleep.

[1]Repertorio de tamales, Cocina Indígena y Popular, Guadalupe Pérez San Vicente, CONACULTA, 2013. [2]La vida en el entorno del tamal peruano, Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, Universidad de San Martín de Porres, 2008. [3]Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, Fray Bernardino de Shahagún, 1540-1585.

For this post, I cooked two non-Mexican tamales recipes: a Kapampangan-style “Bubuto” from the Philippines and a Cuban Tamal (the recipes are included below). They each use a different kind of flour for the masa: the bubuto uses rice flour and the Cuban tamal uses yellow cornflour (or cornmeal), mixed with blended yellow corn kernels. They’re both full of umami and character.

Here’s also a selection of links to other tamales recipes that I have posted in this newsletter before: a Tamal Valluno from Colombia, a Mexican-Californian tamal de rajas, and a complete post about YouTube traditional Mexican cocineras with various links to their tamales recipes from Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Guerrero. But, if you want to become a master at tamale-making —no matter which method you use: banana leaf, cornhusk, or “de maíz nuevo”—, take my new class at Skillshare for free by becoming an Atole Premium member, or by signing up for a free 14-day trial (with access to many other cool classes) by following this link.

I’m also including links to YouTube videos of other beautiful tamales recipes from different countries:

A nacatamal from north of Nicaragua made by a group of local traditional cocineras and narrated by a Nicaraguan food. It is long but worth it, not only because that particular kind of Nicaraguan Nacatamal is very laborious (it takes a whole day, at least), but also because the host takes you to every step of the process: from getting the pig from a local farm, butchering it and going to the mercado, to the cooked tamal…

A Caribbean pastel en hoja made by Omi, a super charming Puerto Rican three-generation cocinera (this is actually her grandmother’s recipe who used to sell them, and her mother helps her cook) who happens to have her radio on with great music on the background, which, if you don’t care about background noises and the lack o fidelity like I don’t, is actually the best way to musicalize videos on YouTube…

And a video about the making of tamales “quiteños” by an Ecuatorian Traditional cook —whose mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were fonda cooks— produced by the Instituto Iberoamericano del Patrimonio Natural y Cultural (IPANC)…


12 tamales

I came up with this recipe by consulting a few links online; it can be made with chicken or shrimp (other recipes also add ham). As I read, the original recipe is made with grounded toasted rice and peanuts, which are commonly substituted by rice flour and peanut butter (you can also add chopped peanuts). Another difference I found between recipes is that some add fish sauce and some don’t (I did).

  • 12 rectagular shaped pieces of banana leaf (plus more to cover) *Heat them carefully on an open flame before using to soften.

  • 1 c of rice flour

  • 1 c of coconut milk

  • 2 c of stock or water

  • 24 prawns (or 2 cups of shredded chicken)

  • 2 hard-boiled eggs cut into quarters

  • 1 heap tablespoon of peanut butter

  • 1/4 c of chopped roasted peanuts *optional

  • 2 tsp of achiote diluted in the same quantity of water

  • 1 tablespoon of fish sauce

  • 1/2 onion, chopped

  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped

  • A pinch of grounded pepper

  • 1 tbsp of sugar

  • vegetable oil

Sautee the garlic and the onion with vegetable oil.

Add the milk, the broth (or water), and the seasonings (pepper, fish sauce, sugar), and cook at low-medium heat.

When the mix starts to simmer, add the flour, little by little, whisking continuously so you don’t get any lumps.

When the masa thickens, separate it into two bowls, and add the achiote and the peanut butter to one of them.

Assemble by adding first a layer of the plain mix, and then another layer of the achiote-peanut butter mix.

Top with the shrimp (or chicken) and egg, fold and cook for around 20 to 45 minutes on a steamer covered with the extra leaves.

This is usually served as a breakfast dish.


16 tamales

For this recipe, I also consulted a few links on-line but was mostly influenced by the videos of a Cary, a Cuban cocinera from Hialeah, Florida.

  • 16 cornhusks (plus more to cover) *soak them prevouisly for at least 30 minutes to soften.

  • 2 cup of yellow cornflour

  • 2 cups of water or broth

  • 1 cup of yellow corn kernels

  • 150 g of lard

  • 500 g of cooked pork meat, browned (use a greasy cut, Cary mixes pieces of a lean cut and chicharrón)

  • Sofrito (sautee chopped onion, garlic, red pepper, and tomato with cumin, orégano, parsley, salt, and pepper or add the commercial mix of Cuban “sazón completa”)

  • Salt to taste.

Make the masa by mixing the grounded corn kernels, the water or broth, the cornmeal, the lard, and salt to taste.

Assemble the tamales by spreading the masa into the leaves and topping with the sofrito and the meat.

Cook for around 20 to 45 minutes on a steamer covered with the extra leaves.

Serve with your favorite Cuban sides.