Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tamal: The Food of Unity

Being a Hispanic American has allowed me to experience two cultures that greatly differ, especially when it comes to food.  Yet because I often find myself being in the strange and confusing middle ground between my two cultures, I am never able fully experience all of the great nuances that each of the cultures offer. The tamal is one of the small forgotten trademarks of my family’s culture that I have never truly appreciated.  When I was sent on the quest to find an important food in my family I was at a loss.  When asked my mother and father both responded without any hesitation, “Tamal”.  Before beginning this assignment I simply thought of the tamal as a food that I could never avoid when the holidays came around.  Yet when I delved into the history of the tamal I came to see this simple food in a different light.  The dish that I despised as a child has been granted through years of struggle and tradition the power to unit families of Hispanic descent. 

Scouring the Internet and library for an adequate definition of the word tamal, something I believed to be very common, turned out to be an arduous endeavor.  After hours of searching I finally stumbled upon a definition in a supposedly reputable source; however, while reading the description of the food I was surprised for it defied all of my previous assumptions about the food. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tamales as a, “A Mexican delicacy, made of crushed Indian corn, flavoured with pieces of meat or chicken, red pepper, etc., wrapped in corn-husks and baked”. The faults in the definition span from the beginning phrase to the last word. The fact that it is referred to as a “Mexican delicacy” shows that the source disregards the fact that tamales are made and eaten in many other Latin American countries (Oxford English Dictionary). Although the components mentioned by the definition are correct it leaves out many of the main ingredients that are crucial to the dish such as the tomatoes and spices.  The “corn- husks” in which the “tamal” is wrapped in is also incorrect when it comes to the tamales made in Guatemala, which are nestled inside of a wrapping of plantain leaves (Oxford English Dictionary).   Although there are many issues with the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary most of them have to do with the exclusion of the variability of the tamal; yet, the last word in the definition “baked” is something that I had never heard of as far as tamales are concerned. For me tamales have always and will always be steamed.  In the end the only aspect of the dictionary entry that was correct was the spelling of the word tamal.  After reading the definition I was surprised that the spelling was correct because I assumed that the dictionary would have taken up the English spelling of the word, tamale.

When I shifted to a dictionary written in Spanish I came upon a definition that was closer to my personal definition of what a tamal is.  The Spanish word reference defined the tamal as “a form of a bread that is filled with meat, made with dough made of flour that is composed of dried corn that is wrapped in plantain leaves or corn husks and is filled with distinct ingredients”.  The drastic difference between the definition of the tamal in the English dictionary and Spanish dictionary shows the extent of the language barrier and the deficit that there is in understanding Hispanic food beyond the tacos and burritos that people associate with Latin food. Despite the trouble that arose from searching for sources on the topic, it was easier to find information about other traditional foods from Guatemala, which speaks to how unknown the food of Guatemala truly is.

From the Mayans who mostly inhabited the pre-Columbian Guatemala to the Aztecs whose Nahuatl language gave birth to the word tamal, indigenous civilizations have influenced and molded the culture and tradition found in Central America (Anaya). Guatemala has had a very rich and diverse culture even before the arrival of the Spaniards, an aspect of life that is kept intact by the large indigenous population. Because the majority of Guatemala’s population is still greatly indigenous with their own language and customs it is not hard to imagine that such diversity would translate into the vast amount of food that is offered in Guatemala. Yet, when searching for other popular Guatemalan foods, like Pepian, in English dictionaries had little or no information about the foods.

Not only are there different specialties that developed with each village but even staples like the tamal, that are very common in Guatemala as a whole, vary depending on the village or family preference.  The diversity in how the tamal is made can be attributed in part to the language barrier that exists between not only villages across the country but with neighboring villages.  With the languages spoken in Guatemala numbering in the high twenties, ranging from Mayan dialects to the official language Spanish, difference in translation is expected (“Background Note: Guatemala.”).  Another factor that can attribute to the difference in tamales from different regions is the fact that Guatemala is a largely agricultural country with little in terms of technology, when it is compared to the United States, which makes it difficult to transport goods (“Background Note: Guatemala.”). Though there are some small discrepancies in the ingredients or the methods of making, tamales as a whole are generally the same which sets the Guatemalan tamal apart from the Mexican tamal (Ortega). Even my informants, who are from my family, albeit from different sides of the family, have a slightly different way of making the “recado” or the sauce for the tamal.  While the basic ingredients are the same for the sauce when asked for her recipe my grandmother Manuela said that she added “Cannela en polvo”, which is ground cinnamon, and my uncle Sergio said that he added “Una rajita de cannela”, which is a cinnamon stick, and “tomillo”, or thyme, an ingredient my grandmother said the she never added. Though it may seem insignificant the simple difference in the form of the cinnamon and the thyme has to do with the availability of different ingredients in their respective towns (Cifuentes) (Ortega).

The variations that surround the tamal do not end with the ingredients or the method of preparation but also extends to the beliefs relating to the origin of the food.  Through my search for the beginning of the tamal, I came across numerous sources that did not even attempt to pinpoint the origin of the tamal.  The written sources that I was able to find traced tamales “back to the Aztecs before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. [They] were prepared as a dish for ceremonies and festivals. Tribal priests molded tamales with their hands as an offering to the gods” (Anaya).  My Uncle Sergio however when asked about the history of the tamal said:
Pues no se mucho de cuando empezaron a ser lo único que se con seguridad es que es una comida típica de mi país de Guatemala que desde llegaron los españoles los mayas ya sabían como hacerlos y como por que es una tradición de mi país para una celebración especial como un casamiento, quinceañera, de una festividad como la navidad.  (Ortega)

Well I do not know much about when they started making them the only thing that I know for sure is that it is a traditional food from [Guatemala]. Before the arrival of the Spanish the Mayans already knew how to make them.  And [they are traditionally made for] special celebrations like weddings, a quinceañera, and festivities like Christmas. (Ortega) 
 While the information given by my informant and the information contained in the Internet source differs the fact that the tamal is an ancient food staple of Latin American countries is consistent with both. Without concrete knowledge of the history behind the food, both of my informants assumed that the Mayans were the individuals who created the tamal; this phenomenon could have arisen from the knowledge that Guatemala was greatly populated by the Mayan civilization while the Aztec occupied most of Mexico. The simple difference between the natives that the sources believe began to make the meal shows the fact that due to its cultural importance each county wishes to claim being the originators of the tamal. By saying that Mayans were the first ones to create the tamal validity is added to the way that Guatemalans make tamales and the same is true for the Mexican tamale when the Aztec are named as creators of the tamal (Anaya). The belief that the word tamal comes from the Nahuatl “tamalli”, which means wrapped, further agrees with the theory that the Aztecs were the source of origin for the tamal seeing that Nahuatl is an Aztec language not a Mayan language (Anaya). Although there is more backing for one of the theories over the other the sole fact that the progression of time causes dynamic organisms such as culture to change drastically it is difficult to pinpoint the creation of the meal that now has such great meaning for many Spanish speaking countries and communities.

The contrast between the theories of the origin of the mysterious tamal is translated into the difference in the way that the tamal is made in differing countries. Because Mexican tamales are the most popularized through the United States there is a misconception surrounding what a tamal can be and the different countries that offer the dish.  The main components that make up a tamal are generally the same. All tamales consist of the masa, which is dough made with dried corn flour, a form of recado, which is a sauce made of chilies and peppers, the meat, which can traditionally be either pork, chicken, or turkey, and of course the wrapping, which depending on the country of origin can be either plantain leaves or corn husks (Ortiz). Though the various regions of a country may differ in some of the ingredients that they use to make tamales, the distinctions are barley noticeable for most of the time it consist of either the inclusion or the exclusion of an ingredient. However, when it comes to countries and their way of making tamales the difference is indisputable which has lead to the difficulty to define a tamal as well as the division between the “correct” way to make a tamal. The main differences between the Mexican tamal and the tamal made by Guatemalan’s have to do with, “los ingredientes y la preparación , unos  son parecidos pero los sazones son diferentes, pero al mismo tiempo son un poco similar”, “the ingredients and the preparation, some are similar but the seasonings are different, yet at the same time they are similar” enough to all be classified as a tamal (Ortega). The, “diferente tamañillo y [el] diferente sabor”, “the different size and the different flavor of the tamal is what ultimately separates the Mexican tamales from the Guatemalan tamales (Cifuentes).  The simple difference in the composition of such a small food shows the shared history of many Latin American countries as well as showing the characteristics that makes every country a unique entity.


History and tradition, which makes tamales different, is also what makes the tamal such an important staple for families. When asked how their families began to make tamales both of my informants said that they did not know since the tamal was always around when they were growing up.  Even when asked when they began to make tamales my grandmother said that she began to help her mother make them we she was still a young girl so that they could sell them for 7 “centavos,” which would equate to about a penny which was still seen as expensive for a tamal, however she did not begin to make them on her own until after she was married (Cifuentes).  This shows how important the tamal is, because even with the poverty that inhabits Guatemala individuals always manage to scrounge up the resources, which they can get from selling tamales, in order to have this dish for celebration. The information given by my grandmother shows the vital point that tamal making is a social event in which families gather and pitch in with the cooking and assembly of the tamales.  The massive amount of labor that goes into making tamales, especially in the traditional way, causes tamales to be seen as a specialty. Because they are so special, tamales are traditionally made for Christmas, New Years, and weddings. The fact that tamales mark the beginning of these celebrations means that they are always present.  For this very reason my family does not even know of a time where they did not have the tamal around.

I was a very picky eater when I was young and when I was exposed to tamales I would always refuse to eat them. I remember helping my grandmother once when she was visiting from Guatemala; I was still young so the only thing that I did was mix the masa. I stirred the astoundingly large vat of lard, water, and corn flour with a wooden implement that looked like, and was almost the size of, a paddle. I would eat little bites of the cooked masa. However, when the entire tamal was assembled there would be something that I could never pinpoint that just never appealed to me.  After all of these years I have yet to eat tamales. I would like to think that if I do eat them again that my taste buds would have matured and that I would actually enjoy them as much as everyone else I know does. My not liking tamales has always made me different from my family members who on holidays always make fun of me by saying that I am not a true Guatemalan because I do not like tamales. My family is generally very sarcastic and I know that when they make fun of me they do not really mean it but I believe that it shows how integral the entire tamal process is important for our culture. Tamales serve as a reminder of the past and keeps history alive through the changing times by identifying individuals as a part of a particular cultural group.

Though many of my family members immigrated to the United States and left behind many aspects of their culture and instead adopted the culture of their new home, the tamal during Christmas and New Years is something that they have never forgotten. The tamal is so powerful that it has been able to carry important cultural aspects across barriers, not only keeping the tradition alive but spreading the popularity of the dish to others. Despite the absence of some essential tamal ingredients, such as the plantain leaves, they are still produced in the United States albeit with some improvisation (Bermudez). Instead of just using the natural plantain leaves aluminum foil takes its place as the insulator for the tamal. The great lengths that individuals are willing to go in order to keep making tamales for the holidays shows its importance to not only my family but to many other Hispanic families. 


§  Los ingredientes son- The ingredients are
o   Masa –  Corn flour
o   Aceite- Oil
o   Consomé de pollo
o   La carne (diferentes tipos dependiendo cual prefiere la gente)- Meat (can vary)
o   Recado- Sauce
§  Se prepara con diferente especies (different spices)
·      Ajonjolí- Sesame
·      Pepitoria- Ground pumpkin seeds
·      Chile jaque
·      Chile pasa
·      Chile pimiento – Bell pepper
·      Tomate – Tomatoes
·      Cebolla- Onions
·      Ajo- Garlic
·      Tomillo- Thyme
·      Una rajita de canela- Cinnamon
·      Dos o tres clavos- Two or three cloves
o   Hoja de plátano- Plantain leaves
o   Sazonador- Seasonings
§  Sal – Salt
§  Pimienta- black pepper
o   Con la pita con que se amara – String to tie the tamal 

Works Cited
Anaya, Xochitl . "Tamales by any other name remaine the same."  Borderlands,Spring1991.
 Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
“Background Note: Guatemala.” Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, July 27, 2011. Web. 27
Nov. 2011.
Bermudez, Odilia et. al. “Secular trends in food patterns of Guatemalan households: New
            foods for old.”  FASEB Journal 21. 5 (April2007): pA55-A55.
Cifuentes Rodriguez, Manuela. Personal Interview. 27 November 2011. (Spanish)

Ortega, Sergio. Personal Interview. 27 November 2011. (Spanish)

Ortiz, Toni-Ann. “Holiday Tamales” National Catholic Reporter 47.4 (2010): p1a-5a 3.
“Tamal.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd edition. 1989. Online

“Tamal.” WordReference, 2005. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.

 pictures credited to:,r:17,s:18&tx=105&ty=81

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