What Is a Tamale?

What are tamales? I’m so happy you asked. As someone with plenty of late night tamale-eating experience (and someone who’s done the research), I have the answers. 

I was lucky enough to spend about four years living in Chicago. Chicago, if you’ve never been, is a great food town. It’s also a really great drink town. There are seemingly endless bars of all varieties, and unlike some other cities, many of them are open to the wee hours. For whatever reason, though, their kitchens are not open as late. There are a few exceptions, but if you’re drinking in the windy city, you might find yourself at a bar at one in the morning feeling pretty hungry. Enter, the “Tamale Guy,” a man who went from bar to bar selling homemade tamales to inebriated Chicagoans (you can actually read all about his saga in this Eater Chicago article). 

I have had the good fortune of being in a bar he was going through and purchasing a cheese tamale, and let me tell you, it’s a perfect, simple, satisfying food option when you’ve had a few drinks. But if you have not had the good fortune to be in the path of the Tamale Guy, perhaps you have never even eaten one. So, what is a tamale, exactly? Where are they from? What’s in them? Let’s unwrap some answers. 

What are tamales?

Tamales are an ancient Mesoamerican food that were first eaten over 7,000 years ago and remain a popular dish to this day. They are made from masa (a form of corn dough) and a filling such as meat, cheese, fruit, or many other things. They are steamed in a banana leaf or corn husk. It’s a complete meal in a convenient package!

Where are tamales from?

Tamales originated in the Mesoamerican region, around the area that is now Guatemala and Mexico. The Mexican tamale is arguably the most famous version, but every country in Central and South America has their own regional variety of the dish. For example, Nicaraguan tamales are larger and made with pork, rice, potato, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and olives. 

What are tamales made of?

Tamales are made from a form of corn-based dough known as masa. This is the chief ingredient, and the main thing that is guaranteed to be inside. Beyond this, if you want to know what is in a tamale, the sky’s the limit. Popular options are chicken, beef, pork, and cheese. But there are a lot of varieties as well, including beans, seafood, fruit, mushrooms, and anything else that sounds like it might be good mixed with hot corn dough (so that’s basically everything). 

How to eat a tamale?

Tamales can be eaten with a fork and knife or even your bare hands (especially if you’ve had a couple drinks). It’s not that complicated. The one potentially confusing factor is that tamales are traditionally served in a corn husk or banana leaf. You shouldn’t eat either—you unwrap it and either throw it away or use it as a makeshift plate.

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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