History of Tamales
Tamale is derived from the word tamalii from the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs. The word means wrapped food. No one knows for sure when or who invented the tamale, but we do know tamales have been written about since pre-Columbian days. In the 1550's, the Aztecs served the Spaniards tamales during their visits to Mexico. Tamales were also eaten by soldiers on their lengthly sojourns since tamales are easily portable and heatable.
The tamales of old came in all shapes and sizes. There were meat, seafood, vegetable, nut and fruit tamales. Some were filled with the corn dough masa we use today and some were not. Crushed rice or beans could be used instead of the masa or the tamale could contain no masa at all. Tamales could be wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, avocado leaves, other non-toxic leaves, or even paper or bark. Tamales were steamed, grilled, roasted, boiled or even fried. There was quite a variety.
The tamales of today are more homogeneous. The most common tamales are made with beef, chicken or pork in a red or green chile sauce or sweet tamales made with raisins and cinnamon. Most are wrapped with corn masa in a corn husk and steamed.
Tamales are typically not made every day anymore due to the labor involved. They are made for special occasions like the Day of the Dead, Christmas, New Year's or just about any other family or holiday celebration.
It's usually a family affair. Many family members gather together to make the fillings and masa the day before. The following day, an assembly line of family of all ages form to spread the masa on corn husks, fill and fold the tamales. Once all the tamales are assembled, they are steamed and finally eaten. Usually hundreds of tamales are made at once so everyone can take some home and share with friends and family.