Back in the late 1930s and the early 1940s, my parents would often drive to Montebello in California to buy tamales from a market where the building was shaped like a giant tamale. I can’t remember much about their tamales accept there was a cornhusk with a dough filled with some kind of meat.

What is a tamale? It is generally a meat filling surrounded by dough. The dough is called “masa harina” and is made from white corn flour mixed with lard and a meat broth. The masa is spread out on a cornhusk or banana leaf – each present a difference taste to the tamale – and filling is spread on top of the masa. The mixture is folded over, thus filling is surrounded by the masa. The cornhusk or banana leaf is tied and is placed in a steamer and steamed for three or more hours.

Masa harina is available in many supermarkets. Today, in most Mexican restaurants, the tamales are about two ounces. I like to call them border tamales. When I lived in Texas I called them TexMex tamales. In San Antonio I went to the tamale factory where some were handmade.

Once you go south of the border, tamales are all different. Tamales originated in Mexico by the Mayans in about 1,200 BC. The Aztec, Olmeca, and Tolteca moved south into the Inca Empire and all along the way different countries made their own version of the Mayan tamale.
The name “tamale” comes from the Spanish word “tamal.”
Tamales are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In Mexico, the first tamales came from the Yucatan, and as in most tropical countries, wrapped in banana leaves. Other areas used cornhusks, while in some regions, chard or avocado leaves are used.

During pre-Columbian times, the Aztecs filled them with turkey, fish, frog, gopher, rabbit, eggs, bees, honey, squash, and/or beans. Can you imagine eating tamales made with gopher meat?

The most popular tamale made in Mexico is filled with pork, onion, garlic, jalapeño chilies and salt, and wrapped in cornhusks. Today, visitors to the Yucatan will find tamales filled with pumpkin seeds, cooked eggs, and chard wrapped in a banana leaves.

My favorite Mexican tamale comes from Oaxaca, filled with chicken, onions, garlic, and black mole wrapped in banana leaves and formed into a square.

Mole is a mixture of three kinds of chilies, garlic, onions, cloves, cinnamon, anise, black pepper, prunes, chocolate, almonds, sesame seeds, plantain and raisins.

In Central America, tamales are found in all of the countries. Some of the tamales have no filling and is eaten like bread.
In Guatemala there are hundreds of varieties with the most popular filled with chicken or pork and tomatoes.

In El Salvador they make sweet tamales filled with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, and fruit with pineapple – my favorite fruit. They also make chicken or pork tamales, some filled with chickpeas and/or potatoes.
In Belize, tamales are called “bollo” and are green corn tamales.

In Nicaragua they make the largest tamale called “nacatamales.” This is my favorite tamale. The filling has pork, rice, potatoes, onion, bell peppers, tomatoes and mint. Some cooks add other ingredients such as cooked black beans, canned chickpeas, and olives, to name a few.

In Honduras, their tamales are similar to Nicaragua; however their favorite tamales are sweet tamales similar to those made in El Salvador.

In Costa Rica the tamales are called “deaf tamales” and are served during the holy days and other special occasions. They are filled with chicken, pork, or beef, and garlic, sweet or hot peppers, onions, rice, and potatoes. These tamales are generally not spicy, however, has a bit of cumin, achiote, and black pepper.

In Panama the tamales are filled with chicken, raisins, onions, and tomato sauce.
Not all countries in South America have tamales. Some have a food that looks like tamales and has different names.

In Argentina, tamales are filled with lamb or pork. Also, they make another version called “huma” that can be either sweet or savory and are not considered tamales. However they look and taste like a tamale.

In Peru and Chile they make “humayas” filled with onions, cream cheese, red pepper, corn, butter, basil, and green chilies. They are wrapped in cornhusks.

In Peru and Bolivia their tamales are spicy, large, wrapped in banana leaves. In Lima the filling is chicken or pork with boiled eggs, olives, peanuts and hot chilies. In the smaller cities the tamales are smaller.

In Brazil they make a food called “pamonka.” It is not a tamale, but looks like a tamale.

In Venezuela, tamales are called “hallacas.” They are wrapped with banana leaves and filled with stewed pork, raisins, chickpeas, tomatoes, bell peppers, parsley and stuffed olives. They also make “bolos” that are similar to tamales, wrapped in cornhusk, filled with hot peppers and served as a side dish.

In Colombia, tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and are known as “tolimense” and shaped into ball about the size of a baseball. The filling is chicken, pork, green onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, carrots, green peas, boiled eggs and potatoes.

In Ecuador the tamales are called “humitas” and are filled with pimento-stuffed green olives, boiled eggs, red bell peppers, garlic, cheese, chicken, pork and raisins. The masa is made with eggs, butter and lard, sugar, peanut butter, and seasoned with allspice and black pepper.

Tamales are found in other parts of the world, such as Spain and the Philippines and are made with local ingredients.
Roseville resident  is the author of more than a dozen food and history books. 


Written by Richard S. Calhoun

Information for this article came from his “Breakfast South of the Border” cookbook that features 152 recipes from 21 countries, and is available at