Quick Facts About Tamales

Excerpt from “Enormously Big Official Valley 101 Cookbook,” featuring a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published December14, 2003.)

Classic newcomer/snowbird question: We have spent 11 winters in Arizona and still don’t know how to eat a tamale. Since this apparently is the big season for tamales, give us some direction so we don’t look stupid.

Answer: Mmmm, tamales. I wonder if my neighbor is going to make tamales this year. She brought some over last year, and they were great.

I should start buttering her up. Maybe I’ll wash her car or something like that.

Anyway, eating a tamale is pretty simple, really. You just unwrap it and eat it. Whatever you do, don’t eat the cornhusk.

Nothing will mark you as newcomer/snowbird doofus as surely as eating the cornhusk. Gerald Ford did that once when he was president.

In some of Latin America, they wrap their tamales in banana leaves instead of cornhusk. Don’t eat the banana leaves, either.

Now, I say a good tamale shouldn’t need to be topped with any salsa or anything like that, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.

You’ll want to keep a flour tortilla at hand in case it’s especially spicy tamale. That will help cool your mouth by soaking up the oil-based hot stuff.

Tamales go way back, possibly way back to 5000 B.C. The thinking is they were a military staple because they could be made ahead of time and carried along by the armies to be heated up later or eaten cold.

Tamales also were used in religious ceremonies by priests who made the tamales and offered them to their gods as a sacrifice.

I’ve never had one, but some people make sweet tamales, stuffed with fruit or jam. That sounds pretty good, don’t you think?


  1. SaraD says

    I used to work with someone whose wife always made sweet mini-tamales for Christmas. Hers had an apple filling. She served them sprinkled with powdered sugar. They were fanTASTIC.

    My father used to talk about a time when he was in high school in the mid 1930s, when he went to high school in a small town in Colorado. He and his buddy would hitchhike down to Denver – sometimes when it was snowing – to buy wonderful red tamales from a street-corner vendor in Denver, for 5 cents apiece.

    When I was a child, my mother used to make a sandwich filling out of canned tamales that she took out of the wrappers, heated, mashed, and mixed with mayonnaise and chopped sweet pickle and, yes, I know it’s weird. It was actually kind of good, though. I have often wondered what ever might have made her think, “Hey, I believe I want mayo and pickle with my tamales today,” but do you think I ever thought to ask her?…

    My favorite is a green corn tamale, which is supposed to actually be made with corn that’s green, but restaurants often make them with yellow corn and top them with green sauce (or “gravy”, depending on who you are and where you came from) and call it a “green corn tamale”. I think the corn makes a difference, so I look for the real deal, but that’s just me. The corn husk really does add flavor, so, although other types of wraps are sometimes used, I really want one that was steamed in corn husk, and I want it with gravy, not plain. And I want it now.

    Macayo’s restaurants serve an appetizer called “Green Corn Tamale Bites” – little balls of green corn tamale that are breaded and deep fried. OH. MY. Wonderful little gems of deliciousness served with a little Baja Sauce, that being a kind of cream cheesy, slightly spicy sauce that I haven’t yet figured out how to clone…. I could live on Green Corn Tamale bites. Forever. Joyfully.

    “Tamales” is a kind of odd Spanish grammar quirk. Technically, a single tamale is a “tamal” (“un tamal”). “Tamales” is the plural form of the word. The singular “tamale” developed from that – reverse development, linguists say. The term “tamale” is used in Mexico, though, so we in the U.S. are not out of line in using it today.

    Now I’m hungry.

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