How Do You Eat Tamales?

And what do you serve with them?

December 29, 2023

Related To:

tamales mexicanos, mexican tamale, spicy food in mexico


tamales mexicanos, mexican tamale, spicy food in mexico

Photo by: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/Getty Images

Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/Getty Images

By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.

A staple of Mexican cuisine, and served at many Central and South American restaurants, tamales have millennia of history. To learn more about what tamales are, how to eat tamales and the best ways to serve them, we consulted Barbara Sibley, CEO and chef-owner of Mexican restaurants La Palapa and La Palapa Taco Bar, and creative director of Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York City.

Traditional Tamales served with avocado and pico de gallo on mexican decoration


Traditional Tamales served with avocado and pico de gallo on mexican decoration

Photo by: MiguelMalo/Getty Images

MiguelMalo/Getty Images

What Are Tamales?

Tamales are a dish of corn masa that is sometimes filled, then wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed.

Tamales are primarily associated with Mexican cuisine, but they have been incorporated into the culinary traditions of many Central and South American communities. Tamales can be filled with a variety of proteins such as chicken, pork, fish or turkey that have been cooked in a salsa or mole. Flavor can also be added to the masa itself. “In savory tamales the masa can be seasoned with chiles, salsas, greens and beans,” Sibley says. Tamales can also be sweet. “Sweet tamales can be flavored with lime, cinnamon, raisins, chocolate, piloncillo sugar, sweet plantains, dried fruits and spices,” Sibley says.

Origin of Tamales

Tamales are believed to have originated in Mesoamerica, the land between what we now call South and North America. “The original domesticators of corn, the huasteca Mexicas, named it to-nacayo, which means 'our flesh,'” Sibley explains. “The legend was that the first man and woman were made from corn masa, and these beings made the rest of humanity from clay, wood and other materials.” Mayans named it ixim, and named a goddess after it, "so it's safe to say that corn, corn masa and tamales are primordial to the people of Mesoamerica in a basic and mythological way. There were gods of corn shoots, tender corn, the harvest corn and the foods made from corn.”

A person cooking a traditional Mexican tamal made of corn flour and meat with sauce


A person cooking a traditional Mexican tamal made of corn flour and meat with sauce

Photo by: ERNESTO CHI/Getty Images

ERNESTO CHI/Getty Images

How Are Tamales Made?

“Tamales are made from corn masa that has been processed via nixtamalization, whereby soaking in slaked lime the corn becomes tender and easier to grind. This process also makes the corn more nutritious as it unlocks folate and other vitamins,” Sibley says. “For tamales, the corn is coarsely ground, mixed with a fat, salt and water.”

Once the masa is made, it is placed on the prepared leaf and dolloped with filling, then the leaf is folded and wrapped over the filling to create a package. Sibley notes that the bottom part is folded in but one side is allowed to remain open for the masa to expand as it cooks. Tamales are usually steamed in a special pot or tamalera that allows steam to flow upward into the tamales.

Person opening a tamale with his hands. Tamale, typical Mexican food.


Person opening a tamale with his hands. Tamale, typical Mexican food.

Photo by: Sandor Mejias Brito/Getty Images

Sandor Mejias Brito/Getty Images

How Do You Eat Tamales?

To eat tamales, unwrap the corn husks or banana leaves to enjoy the flavorful masa within. Tamales can be eaten with your hands as a portable snack or breakfast, or they can be eaten with a fork when they are served on a plate. “As tamales usually have salsa they can be messy and crumbly to eat with your hands,” Sibley notes. “There are also the delicate strands of masa that stick to the banana or corn leaves.”

When Are Tamales Eaten?

“Tamales are foods of the fiesta, really for any time you have a lot of hands to make them and mouths to feed. They are eaten during the Christmas season at posadas, which are parties that recreate the story of Jesus and Mary asking for posada, or shelter,” Sibley says. “There is even a fun tradition to determine who has the honor of making tamales for certain holidays."

Sibley shares that tamales are also a morning breakfast staple for Mexicans and sold on street corners where people might buy them on their way to work. “In Mexico City, they are even stuffed into tortas and called guajolotas, or 'big turkey' sandwiches," she says. "Although it doesn’t necessarily have turkey, it is a very large breakfast.”


Photo by: Glow Images/Getty Images

Glow Images/Getty Images

What Do You Serve Tamales With?

You can serve tamales with a variety of sides such as fried plantains, potatoes with rajas, Mexican rice and black beans. “When planning a tamalada, or tamal party, you can accompany your tamales with bowls of red and green salsa, crumbled cotija cheese or queso fresco, fresh lime and pickled red onion,” Sibley says. “In addition, it is delicious to spoon crema Mexicana, queso fresco or a salsa de mesa, such as a salsa verde or salsa Mexicana, over the tamal.”

Sibley notes that the salsa the tamales are cooked with flavors the whole tamal, so tamales are also delicious when eaten on their own or served simply with a cup of hot chocolate or champurrado, hot chocolate thickened with masa and spiced with cinnamon.

Tamale with corn leaf and sauces guacamole pico de gallo


Tamale with corn leaf and sauces guacamole pico de gallo

Photo by: LUNAMARINA/Getty Images


Tamales Recipes

Red Chili Pork Tamales

Red Chili Pork Tamales

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

Making tamales is a year-round affair in Mexico, but they are traditionally made and shared during the holiday season. In this version, pork shoulder is simmers in a sauce amped up with guajillo, ancho and pasilla chiles, then gets wrapped in tender masa dough. Finish with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.


Photo by: Kat Teutsch Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin 917 751 2855

Kat Teutsch Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin 917 751 2855

Pork Tamales
In Mexico, pork tamales typically feature shredded pork cooked in a sauce spiced with ancho and guajillo peppers. In this simplified recipe, juicy pork is cooked in a sauce spiked with vibrant, aromatic chili powder.

Tamales lend themselves to a variety of flavorful fillings, and this plant-based riff is no exception. Cubes of butternut squash are cooked till tender in an aromatic sauce bolstered by chipotle in adobo and chopped Spanish pimento olives, then wrapped in corn husks and steamed to perfection.


Learn how to eat tamales like these chicken tamales from the Food Network

Photo by: Kat Teutsch Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin 917 751 2855

Kat Teutsch Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin 917 751 2855

Everyone has their favorite filling for tamales, and this recipe makes a strong case for chicken as top contender. Juicy chicken pieces are wrapped in a masa dough that gets a boost of flavor from smoky ancho chiles.

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