Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tamales: Holiday Food lore

The world of food lore is filled with beliefs and traditions concerning what to eat when and how. During the Christmas season, one of the most common Hispanic dishes is tamales.  Made from masa (Spanish dough made from corn) they come in different flavors and can be made different ways. 

The earliest recorded mention of the tamale was 5000 BC in the Pre-Columbian history. Women were taken into battle as army cooks to make the masa for the tortillas but the demand for preparing the meal became too overwhelming of a process. A more portable food item was needed. Hence, the tamale. It could be made in advance and put directly on top of the coals to be warmed. 

Even though there no one knows for sure which Pre-Columbian culture initially created this now popular food item, it quickly found its way into many cultures. People adapted the tamale ingredients to fit their geographics. That’s why some are made with red, green and/or black chili while others were made with fish or rabbit. There were also pineapple, cinnamon and berry tamales. Outer wrappings also reflected the terrain and so included cornhusks, banana leaves, avocado leaves and more.

Still a food item that takes time to make, tamales are a much-sought after holiday food. Made in advance they can be cooked dozens at a time and the sauces poured over them are as creative as the cooks want them to be. Meat sauces and sweet sauces alike reflect cultural diversity.

According to Lonely Planet, “no one  is entirely certain how tamales came to be associated with Christmas, but the general explanation is this: no one wants to go through the effort of making them more than once, so you might as well do it for the biggest  meal of the year. Tamales also fulfill an important Christmas food function: they make your house smell incredible.”

Personally I think it's because, like any other holiday gift, they are supposed to be unwrapped (opened) so that the delicious contents can be enjoyed.

Want to make tamales this year? Here are a few recipes to try: