Tamales: A Mexican Holiday Tradition

traditional Mexican tamales, how to make tamales

If you live in southern California you know that tamales are a Christmas tradition, and being of Hispanic origin is not a prerequisite. During the holidays, homemade tamales are highly coveted; you’ll find families ordering tamales from Mexican restaurants (we ordered ours from Las Barcas, a local neighborhood family-owned restaurant) or from some other inside connection established through a friend or co-worker who knows a family that makes tamales to sell during the holidays.

Naturally, including the art of tamale-making had to be part of my series on preserving traditions through cooking and thanks to Aracely, aka Daytripping Mom, I was able to experience it first-hand.

The tradition of tamales dates back to Meso-American times when, long before the Spaniards arrived, Mesoamericans believed that God crafted humans from corn. “Quite literally, corn was their substance of life.” An excerpt from a Seattle PI article states:

Because corn was so important, preciously wrapped tamales became a part of ritual offerings, a human stand-in, of sorts. “When the conquistadors came, and human sacrifice was no longer acceptable, they used tamales as a substitute, placing little bundles of corn as offerings,” says Alarcón.

To this day, the most sacred occasions in Mexico — baptisms, first communions, and special wedding anniversaries — are still marked with the ritual of tamale making.

Enter Josefina Vega, Aracely’s mom, who makes 200-300 tamales every Christmas. She carries on the tradition of beginning at midnight on Christmas eve and working until 4 or 5 a.m. making the masa, slow-cooking the meat, soaking the corn husks, and assembling the tamales. Aracely added that, besides making tamales, the other tradition is having a tired and cranky mother on Christmas Day :-) Nonetheless, she is learning to make tamales and other Latin dishes so her family can appreciate the foods of their heritage.

The best tamales are made from fresh unprepared masa and corn husks purchased at Latin markets. Traditionally masa is mixed with lard, but Josefina uses soybean oil and olive oil rather than animal fat because its a healthier alternative and she is diabetic. The substitution can result in the masa being a little drier and less fluffy. Garlic, onion, and water from the cooked meat is added to the masa for flavor. Josefina doesn’t have a recipe but if you would like try your hand at making tamales, here is one. Perfecting a dough (masa) that will be fluffy, not leaden, when it is steamed is the trickiest part of tamale making and, just like anything else, takes practice.

Tamale fillings vary by region (as do the wrappers and masa); savory fillings from shrimp to a rich, dark mole to sweet fillings of fruit such as pineapple and raisins. Josefina is from Sinaloa in northern Mexico where they use more vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Probably the most common filling is pork with pasilla chiles. Today, Josefina was making spicy pork tamales, with jalapeno peppers adding the heat – I don’t know about you, but I love spicy! Not hot, just a little kick that fills your mouth and is soothed by a gulp of icy cold beverage.

But I digress… The meat mixed with pasilla chiles, cumin, oregano, garlic and onion and is slow-cooked in the oven for several hours. While the meat is cooking, prepare the masa and soak the corn husks in water until they are soft.

Organization is the other key to tamale success. Before starting the actual assembly, the fillings should be ready to go, leaf wrappers and ties (if you use them) should be soaked and cleaned, and a steamer should be prepared. Steam the tamales for 30 – 45 minutes depending on size and thickness.

Enjoy them as they are or I like them topped with a mango salsa alongside a green salad for a fresh twist.

32 Responses to “Tamales: A Mexican Holiday Tradition”

  1. louise December 16 at 9:13 am #

    Priscilla I love tamales! these pictures just made me so hungry. I grew up in the Colorado and there were tons of tamales, better than California- I like mine for breakfast with a fried egg on top!

  2. Monet December 16 at 10:18 am #

    Tamales are big here in Texas. Whenever I visit the grocery store, I always run into people who are buying food to make a big batch of tamales. I loved learning a bit more about the history too. I’m hoping that Ryan and I can experiment in making our own tamales over the next few months. Thank you for sharing with me. I hope you have a wonderful day!

  3. Roxan December 16 at 11:29 am #

    I love love love tamales. Thank you so much for that brief history and background on tamales. The extent of my knowledge of tamales before reading that is that they were a traditional Christmas food. Oh man. I could totally go for a tamale right now…

  4. Jennifer @Jane Deere December 16 at 2:25 pm #

    My husband’s family has tamales every Christmas Eve! It’s a wonderful tradition and they are so delicious!

  5. Victoria December 16 at 4:06 pm #

    Great information on tamales! I lived in SoCal for several years and never realized tamales were so popular around the holidays! I must’ve lived under a rock in West Hollywood, haha. I also didn’t realize the historical significance of corn as being representative of humans. What a fun lesson! I will definitely NOT be up all night making tamales on Christmas, but I appreciate that people still go to that effort to keep traditional alive :)

  6. Lawyer Loves Lunch December 16 at 4:47 pm #

    *swoon* I LOVE homemade tamales. They were so easily accessible when we were in Dallas but now, I need some other way to get my fix. Maybe I’ll try making them?!?

  7. Nancy@acommunaltable December 16 at 4:50 pm #

    I love tamales.. and the history behind them was very interesting to read!! They are fun to make – especially when you get a group together!!

  8. Pachecopatty December 16 at 4:51 pm #

    I didn’t want to watch the video because I knew that it would make me want to run out for tamales! But I did, watch the video, and now I want tamales but I’ll wait and get some tomorrow! I know a little joint that sells the best homemade tamales. I love the mango salsa and salad to go on the side, I could eat like this every day:-) Great post with some good info, thanks for sharing.

  9. Lindsey @ Gingerbread Bagels December 16 at 5:29 pm #

    I LOVE Tamales, it’s been forever since I’ve had them. But they’re one of my favorite things in the world. I loved learning about the history of talames, I never knew any of that before. It’s so fascinating. And wow that’s amazing that Aracely’s mom makes 400 to 500 tamales for Christmas! :)

  10. Angie's Recipes December 17 at 12:50 am #

    I adore the tamales. :-)) Thank you for writing this post with some great information.

  11. briarrose December 17 at 7:08 am #

    Yum! What a great tradition.

  12. fooddreamer December 17 at 9:05 am #

    I lived in AZ for 5 years and it was something of a tradition to have tamales on Xmas eve there too. I loved it! This is such a great post, it’s wonderful to have a detailed recipe and set of instructions for tamales!

  13. Rich December 17 at 10:07 am #

    Interesting that you should post this – have you heard also of the tradition where you fedex me some of these? It’s probably not as well known as some other traditions, but still a very important one. In case you haven’t heard, it’s just common etiquitte to send me two dozen each of any kind you make along with any pertinant condiments.

  14. Roxan December 17 at 11:15 am #

    Priscilla! Thank you for letting me know I am on top 9. didn’t know :) What a great start to the weekend!

  15. Adora's Box December 17 at 11:17 am #

    It is so wonderful to keep old traditions especially during the holidays. I’ve never tried Mexican tamales but would love to. I’ve seen it done on tv and appreciate the labour of love that goes into making it.

  16. Kathy Gori December 17 at 11:35 am #

    These look great. I’ve always wanted to try making these. Thanks for such great directions

  17. Kristen December 17 at 12:37 pm #

    We enjoy tamales here in AZ, too. Our hispanic friends bring them as a special treat. It’s fun to see all of the grocery stores with special displays of masa, corn husks and pork with signs that say (Christmas tamales) I am all for this tasty tradition!!

  18. mangiabella December 17 at 1:16 pm #

    these look wonderful, they are a big part of life here in New Mexico – merry christmas!

  19. Sandra December 17 at 2:28 pm #

    Thank you for the info..I never knew much about them. They look fantastic!

  20. whatsfordinneracrossstatelines December 17 at 3:48 pm #

    That is dedication to stay up till 4 or 5 in the morning to make them. I can’t wait for Christmas, I love traditions such as this.

  21. chefrenee December 17 at 4:24 pm #

    Priscilla, Thank you for sharing this interesting history of tamale making! Really well written, I read every word. Renee Fontes

  22. Priscilla December 17 at 5:36 pm #

    Wow, lots of people like tamales! No surprise there I guess, but I’m glad that you all appreciate my sharing a bit of history on the traditional foods that I write about here. It means a lot to me. Thanks so much :-)

  23. Amanda @ BakingWithoutABox December 17 at 8:24 pm #

    Tamales!! We’ve got a couple of East LA shops that sell out so far in advance of Christmas.

  24. Alexandria December 19 at 8:55 am #

    I grew up eating tamales at Christmas. In fact all of the ladies in my family would get together and have a tamale party. We were all assigned a task whether it be filling, spreading the masa, or folding up the husks. We had an assembly line of sorts. My favorites have always been green corn, sweet bean, and the basic with the barbaoca meat with spanish olives. YUM!!! Thanks for sharing. :)

  25. Jason Phelps December 19 at 10:24 am #

    I have tried these once and they came out pretty good. I need more practice which is so worth!

    Merry Christmas!


  26. The Duo Dishes December 19 at 9:40 pm #

    Someone’s bringing tamales to a holiday party tomorrow, and it’s going to be awesome! We did not grow up with anyone making tamales during the holidays, so it’s a great thing to experience. A nice break from our normal Christmas meals.

  27. Sommer@ASP December 19 at 10:06 pm #

    Oooo! Tamales are one of those foods I have a really strong craving for on occasion! Your photos are working a number on my stomach!!!! I’ve never had them at Christmas though.

  28. Kim December 21 at 8:22 am #

    Lordy, that looks delicious. I’ve spent years crashing my neighbor’s annual tamale party, and worked the assembly line, but in all those years, no gave me a history lesson, So thanks for the history lesson! [K]

  29. foodwanderings December 21 at 9:08 pm #

    What a wonderful tradition Priscilla and what great looking tamales. Happy joyous holiday season.

  30. Lisa December 22 at 8:05 am #

    Love tamales and yours look phenomenal! I could get used to a tradition like this!


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