(Note: the following excerpted from my forthcoming book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl
Tamales are an essential part of many Mexican festivals. Preparation is complex, time-consuming, and an excellent example of Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the women. Preparing tamales is a ritual that has been part of Mexican life since pre-Hispanic times, with special fillings and forms designated for each specific festival or life event.
Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún, considered one of the father’s of culinary history, wrote in an amazing 1590 text based on personal observations, detailing that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamalli (in Nahuatl):
“Salted wide tamales, pointed tamales, white tamales . . . rolled-shaped tamales, tamales with beans forming a seashell on top [with] grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales; turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, abode-shaped tamales, braised ones; unleavened tamales, honey tamales, beeswax tamales, tamales with grains of maize, gourd tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. These were passed around in a basket at banquets, [and custom mandated that they] were held in the left hand.“
Below, are step-by-step instructions for preparing tamales. (In the book, you’ll find diagrams and ten different recipes for tamal fillings, plus a masa recipe).
Tamal with flower imbedded
A special way to present your tamales for any occasion is to add edible flowers. Here, we’ve used squash blossoms imbedded in the masa for these Tamal de Elote or Corn Tamales.
After preparing your corn husks (instructions in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes)…. To fill the tamales: Pick up one husk and lay it across your hand; the wide part of the husk should be facing your body and the thin part outside (think of a triangle, the thin part should be away from your body and the thick part toward you).
Filling your tamales
3. Scoop up about 2 tbsp of masa dough with a spatula, and then smear the husk creating a 1/8-inch-thick layer. Cover about 2/3 of the husk with masa; leave 1/3 uncovered on one side.
Filling your tamales, step 2
Similarly, cover the bottom 2/3 of the husk, and leave the top 1/3 uncovered. You need to leave the top and side uncovered so you can fold it up later. Similarly, cover the bottom 2/3 of the husk, and leave the top 1/3 uncovered. You need to leave the top and side uncovered so you can fold it up later.
Folding your tamales
When filling, be careful that you do not over stuff the tamale, as you will need to have room to close it.
To fold: Starting on the left side, roll the tamale all the way to the right edge.
Folding your tamales, step 2
Now, fold the top of the husk over (think of an envelope) and lay the tamale on the counter, fold facing down. Now, they are ready to steam.
Tamales ready to serve
The name tamale or more correctly tamal—comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli meaning “carefully wrapped”—and is masa steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper, which is discarded before eating.