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Mexican Cuisine

Tamale Trivia: 10 Fascinating Facts

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Mon, Jul 9, 2012 at 8:00 AM
click to enlarge Green corn tamale at Border Grill - ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein
  • Green corn tamale at Border Grill

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.

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