Tamales are typical of Guatemalan cuisine and are basically flavorful mixes of dough, meat, and sauces steamed in large leaves.
Tamales are at the core of the Mayan diet; the Mayans made tamales for their warriors and travelers in order provide food for weeks on the go. When the Spanish came to Guatemala, they introduced new flavors to the region, inspiring a mix of New World and Old World ingredients that are incorporated into tamales found in Guatemala today.
There are numerous versions of Guatemalan tamales. The differences can be found in the size, the leaves used for steaming, flavors of sweet or savory, and the ingredients of the dough (or masa).
What Exactly is a Tamale?
The dough of the tamale is called ‘masa’ and it is dried ground up corn made into a fine flour and then mixed with water. The corn used is not the sweet yellow corn used for consumption in the U.S., but a savory, non-sweet corn called maize.
When it comes to variety, tamales will differentiate in three main areas. The ingredients for the masa can either be corn, potato, or rice based. The filling can consist of savory tamales with meat and sauces, or sweet tamales that have fruits, nuts, and sugar. And while the traditional tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, there are certain variations of tamales that are wrapped in corn husks.
Most Commonly Eaten Tamales
The main types of tamales that one finds in Guatemala are the Tamale Colorado, Tamale Negro, Chuchitos, and Tamalitos.
The Tamale Colorado is the most popular and many Guatemalans eat them every Saturday. Tamale vendors will place a red flag outside their store to signal to people there are fresh tamales available for sale. The Tamale Colorado (or red tamale) has a dark red savory sauce and contains chicken, pork, or beef alongside green olives.
The Tamale Negro is usually found during Christmas time. These tamales are made with a sweet mole sauce alongside turkey, chicken or pork, and raisins.
Chuchitos are a different version of tamales that are wrapped in corn husks, with a thicker masa consistency, filled with a simple tomato sauce and chicken. Chuchitos are a popular street food and are smaller than the traditional tamales.
Tamalitos are small, simple tasting tamales that usually accompany meals. They are often used in place of bread, and used for dipping into soups or salsas.
Make Tamales at Home
For those feeling brave enough to tackle the intricate world of tamale making, here is a great recipe to check out.