Tamales: A Christmas tradition

In the Southwest and for many Mexican-American families, Christmastime means tamale-time.

Tamales are a tasty package of meats, cheeses or vegetables in a corn-based shell all wrapped up in a corn husk and steamed.

Tamales have been eaten in the Americas for a long, long time. They originated in Mesoamerica and date back thousands of years. The portable food was eaten by Olmec and Toltec hunters, travelers and soldiers, and later by the Aztec and Maya. There’s evidence that the Inca of South America even ate tamales.

This tamale dish is on the menu at Tia's Cocina, located at Hotel Chimayo de Santa Fe.

This tamale dish is on the menu at Tia’s Cocina, located at Hotel Chimayo de Santa Fe.

So why tamales at Christmas?

There are several theories about why this food has become so identifiable with the birth of Christ.

Corn was a very important crop in Mesoamerica, with people believing that people were created from corn. Tamales, because they were wrapped in corn husks, became part of ritual offerings. As a nod to those times, people prepare tamales for special occasions including baptisms, weddings, Dia Del Los Muertos, and, of course, Christmas.

Tamales can also be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, carrying in her the baby Jesus or a mother carrying a future life, especially if the tamale contains an olive.

Making tamales is labor-intensive, so often many are made at once and families and friends are invited over for a day – or more – of togetherness and tamales.

Preparing a tamale’s masa dough correctly or using a good masa dough is the most crucial aspect of making the perfect tamale, according to our Executive Chef Tony Trujillo. The dough is made from a base of large-kernal corn that has been dried, cooked in a mixture of water and calcium oxide and then drained, dried and ground into a flour. Chef Trujillo says the dough for the perfect tamale should not be too dry.

As you and your loved ones gather this Christmas season to make your favorite meal, why not try one of these delicious tamale recipes from the wonderful book Tamales or from New Mexico Magazine?

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