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Tamale Trivia: 10 Fascinating Facts

Green corn tamale at Border Grill
Green corn tamale at Border Grill
Anne Fishbein

Last week, we told you about 10 spots for terrific Mexican tamales in L.A., from King Taco to Rivera. What we didn't say is that the tamale is so versatile that hundreds of varieties exist within Mexico alone, not counting nouveau creations with ingredients like foie gras and truffles. Turn the page for 10 other fascinating facts about tamales.

10. Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 5,000 - 8,000 B.C.E. It's possible that the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans first developed tamales as a way to keep and carry food made from corn. The tamales became part of rituals and ceremonies, feasts and fiestas. The word tamale, or tamal in Spanish, derives from an Aztec word of the Nahuatl language, tamalli.

9. Although tamales may seem as quintessentially Mexican as tacos or refried beans, you'll find versions around the world, including most of Latin America. Keep an eye out for other varieties such as humitas, bollos, and halacas.

8. We've been eating tamales in the U.S. since the turn of the 20th century when African Americans (working alongside Mexican migrant workers in the cotton fields) learned the craft. Vendors hawked them as "Red Hots" on the streets of Mississippi, New York, and Chicago.

7. "Tamales are made for an occasion, and an occasion is made of making them," Mexican cuisine authority Diana Kennedy writes in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. This is true in L.A. as much as in Mexico. Families often make their own tamales for special events or holidays, especially Christmas, calling all hands to the kitchen for a festive assembly line: Spread masa and filling onto cornhusk; wrap; repeat. This tamale-making party is called la tamalada.

6. Heard of "The Great Tamales Incident?" During a visit to San Antonio in 1976, former president Gerald Ford bit into a tamale without removing the corn husk wrapper. Ay caramba! Most tamale wrappings are intended only as packaging and not meant to be eaten. Don't even think about chomping down on banana leaf or tree bark wrappings, not to mention the plastic wrap, foil or fabric sometimes encasing your tamale. But Swiss chard or hoja santa might be okay.

 

Brazo de Reina tamale at Chichen Itza
Brazo de Reina tamale at Chichen Itza
D. Solomon

5. Mexican food is the favorite cuisine of First Lady Michelle Obama. At a White House Cinco de Mayo event last year her husband teased, "You do not want to be between Michelle and a tamale," to cheers from the crowd. (We wonder whether the President sampled his first tamale in L.A. during his student days at Occidental College in Eagle Rock...)

4. Tamales are usually steamed, but they can also be boiled, grilled, toasted, fried, barbequed, oven-roasted or fire-roasted.

3. We're most familiar with tamales made with masa, a corn-based dough. But tamale dough is sometimes made with ingredients such as rice, beans, potato, or even spinach.

2. Traditional masa is prepared via a process called nixtamalization: Corn is cooked and steeped in an alkaline solution that loosens the hull so it can be rinsed away, making the corn easy to grind and more nutritious. (This is why indigenous people could thrive on a corn-based diet.) The resulting kernels, called nixtamal or hominy, are ground to create dough. (Note, however, that tamale masa can also be made with fresh corn.)

1. Chiles, cheese, chicken, pork and beef are typical fillings for Mexican tamales. But the possibilities are nearly endless. How about iguana? Boiled egg? Shrimp? Or the playful spins of chef John Sedlar (Rivera and Playa) such as the Tokyo tamale with ahi tuna in ponzu, the Shanghai tamale with duck and bok choy, or the Jewish tamale with whitefish mousse and smoked salmon? And for dessert, maybe a chocolate tamale flecked with real gold?


Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Reach the author at dainabeth@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @dainabethcita.


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