For those of you who found the Baby Jesus figurine in the rosca, remember, it’s your duty to provide the tamales on February 2nd, Candlemas Day. You could choose to labor over them for hours, though most of us simply buy them instead. So why not surprise your guests with something unexpected this year? Instead of the classic recipes typically found in Mexico City, give some different regions and ingredients a try. It is estimated that there are more than 500 types of tamales in Mexico alone; that means there is still a world of flavors to discover.
The word tamal comes from the Nahuatl tamalli, which means “wrapped.” They are made from corn dough and filled with vegetables, meat, or fruit, and then wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. This pre-Hispanic food continues to be a popular staple and a source of culinary innovation.
Originally from Michoacán and triangular in shape, these delicious little tamales were a dish enjoyed by the Purepecha nobility. They used to be served with meat and sauces, although the recipe has since been modified. Now, they are made with vegetables, cheese and tequesquite (mineral salt), wrapped in a corn husk, and bathed in salsa.
Tamal de chipilín
Native to Chiapas, but also enjoyed in Tabasco, this regional delicacy is made with chipilín leaves (a local shrub), whose unique flavor is mixed in with the corn dough, broth, and lard before being served with red or green salsa. There are many variations, which are often prepared for parties and special events.
Another small and sweet delight from Michoacán that is delicately prepared for special occasions is the yellow tamale, whose color derives from rice flour, eggs, and milk to resemble a canary. In some states like México and Querétaro, raisins are also added. Super soft and fluffy, they are exquisite paired with a hot chocolate or an atole.
Sinaloa has managed to keep a lid on a secret that should be more widely known – bearded tamales. Originally from the coastal city of Escuinapa, these delicacies are prepared with shrimp and guajillo chilies. They get their name from their preparation, as the head and “beard” (antennae) of the shrimp protrude from one end.
Tamales de chaya
Common in the southern states of Campeche and Chiapas, these tamales are made with the superfood chaya leaves (a tree native to the Yucatán Peninsula), minced pork, olives, capers, raisins, and tomato. Sweet in flavor, they are served with tomato sauce and pumpkin seeds. There are different variations, which include chopped hard-boiled egg and, instead of being wrapped in a banana leaf, they are wrapped in the chaya leaf.
Tamal de muerto, Querétaro Huasteca
From a somewhat dark and gloomy tradition, tamales de muerto (tamales of the dead) are typical of the Huasteca region of Querétaro and, although they are mainly served to celebrate the Day of the Dead, they crown the tables of many other festivities as well. They are made with blue corn (for mourning) and can be prepared sweet with piloncillo, or salted with chile guajillo and cheese. Legend has it that there was a healer called El Gran Tuno, who bathed the deceased with water, which was then used to prepare the tamales that would be offered during their wake – some versions mention that ash was also used. Although uncorroborated, the story of the tamal de muerto endures to this day as a dish linked to the memory of those loved ones who are no longer with us.
Zacahuil, Veracruz Huasteca
Unlike a typical tamale, the zacahuil is prepared with a marbled corn dough that gives it a unique crumbly texture. It is considered the largest tamale in Mexico, as it is not made in small pieces, but as one large mass that can weigh more than 50 kilos (110 lbs.) and feed an entire town. It is prepared with pork or turkey meat, regional chili salsas and spices, and wrapped in banana leaves. It is cut to order and served with mortajada sauce. While originally from Veracruz, it is also eaten in other states such as Hidalgo, Puebla, and Tamaulipas.
Tamal de elote uchepo, Michoacán
Corn tamale fans will fall in love with this variant from Michoacán and parts of Guerrero. Uchepo – which means “fresh corn tamale” in the local Purépecha – are made with young corn, known for its sweetness and softness. Depending on the recipe, milk or cream is added, which gives them a very spongy consistency. Although naturally sweet, they are not considered a sweet tamale. They can be served with pork stews or on their own with just tomato sauce, cream, and fresh cheese.
Yucatán, with its extensive culinary traditions, cannot be left out of the this list and mucbipollo (from the Maya mikbil, meaning “buried”) is perhaps a perfect representative. Served around Day of the Dead, it can be made with chicken, turkey, or pork and a mixture called kol – the same broth where the meat was boiled with masa and achiote. It is wrapped in banana leaves and buried for cooking. A tasty and hearty snack for the souls on their pilgrimage.
Tamal de bola, Chiapas
Tamales de bola (named for the ball shaped way they are wrapped in corn husks) are another great culinary example of what the beautiful state of Chiapas has to offer. Made with different chiles, including local simojovel, tomato and spices that make up the sauce where the pork will be cooked, each juicy bite awakens memories of the land from which it originates.