Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico’s 2,000-Year-Old Tamale

Post originally Published November 30, 2023 || Last Updated December 1, 2023

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Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Origins Traced Back to Aztec Empire

Far before corn tortillas became the staple of Mexican cuisine, tamales held center stage as one of the most important foods in Mesoamerican culture. The origins of tamales can be traced all the way back to 8,000-5,000 BC when early Indigenous peoples of Mexico began domesticating maize and transforming it into masa (corn dough).

However, it was during the height of the Aztec Empire between 1345-1521 CE that tamales became firmly cemented in ancient traditions. For the Aztecs, tamales were considered sacred offerings to their gods and eaten during religious festivals and ceremonies. The Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic work on Aztec culture compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún in the 1500s, contains detailed descriptions of how tamales were prepared and consumed during this time.
According to the Florentine Codex, tamales were made from masa mixed with fat, stuffed with meat, fish, fruits, chilies and other ingredients, wrapped in corn husks or avocado leaves, and then steamed or baked over charcoal. They were made in several varieties - from plain tamales filled only with masa, to elaborately-stuffed tamales incorporating turkey, rabbit, tadpoles, axolotl salamanders, honey, fruits and more.

During Aztec religious festivals like Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war, Aztec priests would make offerings of tamales to the deity's statue. Tamales were also given as gifts during naming ceremonies for Aztec children. For common people, plain tamales were eaten as part of the everyday diet, while fancier tamales stuffed with meat and chilies were considered special treats for feasts and celebrations.
Beyond just food, tamales also held deep symbolic meaning for the Ancient Aztecs. The corn husk wrapping represented the womb, while the masa dough symbolized life itself. Together, the tamale was seen as giving birth to sustenance for the gods and humankind. This imbued the humble tamale with sacredness and cemented its cultural significance for millennia to come.

What else is in this post?

  1. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Origins Traced Back to Aztec Empire
  2. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Maize at the Heart of Ancient Traditions
  3. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Wrapped in Leaves or Corn Husks
  4. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Fillings Ranged from Turkey to Chocolate
  5. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Served at Religious Festivals and Rituals
  6. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Spanish Influence Shaped Modern Tamale
  7. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Every Region Has Its Own Style
  8. Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Tamales Still Central to Mexican Cuisine

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Maize at the Heart of Ancient Traditions

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico’s 2,000-Year-Old Tamale

Maize lies at the very heart of tamale history and tradition. Without this versatile crop first domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago, tamales as we know them simply wouldn't exist.

The starchy kernels of maize are transformed through nixtamalization - an alkaline cooking process - into masa, the dough that forms the foundation of tamales and other iconic Mexican foods like tortillas. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they were astounded by how central maize was in Aztec cuisine and culture.

As researcher Janet Long noted in her seminal work on maize, for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, maize "was ancient, sacred, and respected...Aztecs even believed they were made of maize." The creation story of the Aztecs told how the gods used maize to make the flesh of the first humans. Long argues that maize was revered not only for being a staple food source but also for representing concepts like life, fertility and renewal.

This explains why maize and foods made from it like tamales were so often used in religious rituals and ceremonies - they were seen as divine gifts. Tamales in particular were considered sacred because of the symbolism behind their wrapping - the corn husk as the womb and the masa as the fetus, giving birth to life.
Food historian Rachel Laudan has written extensively about how vital maize was to enabling the rise of complex, urban societies in Mesoamerica. According to Laudan, maize's high caloric density allowed early Mexicans to be freed from constantly searching for food and instead develop art, astronomy, architecture and philosophy. Maize made large cities like Tenochtitlan possible, which in turn facilitated the growth of tamale culture and cuisine.
Laudan notes that maize was so fundamental to Aztec culture that tributes from conquered groups or commoners to Moctezuma Xocoyotzin often involved massive deliveries of maize - over 32 tons a day by some accounts! This underscores just how important maize was as a form of food, currency and ritual in Mexico before colonization.

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Wrapped in Leaves or Corn Husks

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico’s 2,000-Year-Old Tamale

The distinctive corn husk wrapping of tamales is far more than just a cooking necessity - it is deeply woven into symbolism and ritual. Tamales trace their origins to a time when pots, pans and other cooking vessels were not readily available. Wrapping masa dough in corn husks or other leaves allowed them to be steamed, retaining moisture while imparting subtle herbal flavors.

According to Laudan, excavations in Oaxaca have uncovered bundles of corn husks from 1500 BC, offering some of the earliest evidence of tamale-making. For the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, plants were incredibly sacred, and imbued with spiritual symbolism. Suzanne Cook writes that “each part of a plant contained specific meaning and was related to human life and death cycles.”

Leaves played a particularly important role in rituals and ceremonies. The Florentine Codex describes how Aztec midwives used maize or maguey leaves during childbirth, and tamales wrapped in these leaves were given as offerings to the birthing goddess Cihuacoatl. Cook notes that leaves “protected and swaddled just-born infants and sacred food offerings.”

When maize was domesticated, the corn husk became the natural choice for encasing tamales prior to steaming. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, in Aztec culture the corn husk was “the woman’s womb, which nurtured the maize masa into a complete tamal.” This symbolism gave tamales a sacred meaning - the maize literally transforming into sustenance and life when steamed inside the husk.
Not only did this wrapping method serve a practical purpose for cooking, it also allowed tamales to be easily transported for rituals, ceremonies and feasts. Bernal Díaz del Castillo gave an account of these portability benefits after observing Aztec feasting rituals, noting how”men came running down the steps of the pyramid carrying cooked dishes wrapped in maize husks and cloths” which were easily dispersed among crowds.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they were perplexed by tamales - unaware of indigenous food customs and cooking methods. As Jeffrey Pilcher recounts, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo “watched in astonishment as [Aztec] women labored to produce a maize dough, which they packed into cornhusks and placed directly on the fire.”

Over time, Spanish influence did transform tamal preparation, with lard replacing native oils and the introduction of beef, pork, rice and other fillings. But according to Long, “even after the Spanish conquest, tamales continued to be wrapped in corn husks” instead of transitioning to European style dishes, preserving this vital cultural tradition. The sacred symbolism of the corn husk endured.

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Fillings Ranged from Turkey to Chocolate

From savory meats to sweet fruits, tamales have showcased the incredible biodiversity of ingredients across Mexico for thousands of years. While masa forms the base, fillings are what give tamales their distinct regional and festive flavors.
According to Jeffrey Pilcher, Aztec-era tamales ranged from plain ones stuffed only with maize butter to more elaborate creations incorporating produce like tomatoes, chili peppers, zucchini blossoms, mushrooms, and fruits like guava and ciruela plums. Meats were also prevalent fillings - turkey, flamingo, frog, fish, rabbit, pocket gopher and even axolotl salamanders!

Fancy tamales made specifically for feasting rituals were even more diverse. As Pilcher describes, Emperor Moctezuma’s royal chefs prepared tamales stuffed with quail, partridge, pheasant, tender chicken and meat from peccaries (a boar-like mammal), deer and domesticated dogs. Chocolate, honey and frothy cacao beverages were other indulgent fillings offered to nobility and gods.
Post-conquest, fillings evolved to incorporate European influences. Pork and beef (introduced by the Spanish) became more common fillings. Rice, raisins, almonds and anise started appearing in tamales as Spanish colonists brought these ingredients from the old world. While indigenous ingredients were still present, pork lard was used more often instead of native vegetable oils.
Each region of Mexico also developed its own distinctive fillings based on local cuisine and ingredients. In Oaxaca, moles negro and rojo, rich stews crafted from chili peppers, chocolate and spices, are popular tamal fillings. In Mexico City, tamales tolucos are stuffed with fresh masa and cheese. Along the coast, you’ll find tamales stuffed with shrimp or fish. Sweet tamales made with chocolate, pineapple, coconut and raisins are closely associated with Christmas and Three Kings Day.
No matter if it’s turkey mole from Puebla, bean tamales from Oaxaca or strawberry sweets from Chiapas, the incredible range of tamal fillings speaks to the diversity of Mexican cooking. Chef Gustavo Arellano calls tamales the “everyman food of Mexico” that allow creativity in adapting local ingredients between the masa layers. For Mexicans, the fillings represent “the foods they love between breads they adore.”

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Served at Religious Festivals and Rituals

For the ancient Aztecs, tamales were inextricably linked with religious rituals and festivals - their consumption was an act of ceremony, not just sustenance. According to food historian Rachel Laudan, “no religious festival was complete without the serving of many, many tamales.” But why exactly were these modest masa parcels so central to sacred Aztec events?

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico and witnessed these lavish religious feasts, they were baffled as to why such a simple dish held such ritual significance. However, to the Aztecs, the ingredients and preparation of tamales carried symbolic meaning that connected them to the gods.

As discussed previously, the corn husk wrapping represented fertility and life, while the masa dough embodied the flesh of humans made from sacred maize. Steam rising as the tamales cooked signified the breath of life entering the body. And various fillings alignment with gods - turkey for Huizipochtli, axolotl for Xolotl, for example.

By consuming tamales during rituals like The Great Feathered Serpent festival, Aztecs were not just appeasing gods but literally absorbing part of the deities’ essence into their bodies. The meaning behind each ingredient and method elevated the tamale beyond mere sustenance.
These religious festivals were lavish spectacles replete with music, dancing, costumes, sacrifices and theatrical performances that could last for days. Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo expressing amazement at the scale of the month-long Great Temple inauguration festival where over 80,000 tamales were prepared as offerings.
During these events, tamales were consumed by common people and nobility alike as part of feasting rituals following sacrifices or theatrical performances. The sharing of tamales strengthened community bonds, while their sacred symbolism cemented the relationship between people, gods, and the precious maize that sustained them.
However, the most hallowed tamales were those specifically made as ceremonial offerings to the gods themselves. According to the Florentine Codex, during some festivals Aztec priests would present tamales at temple altars, leaving them there or burning them as sacrifices. The preparation of each ingredient and steaming process took on spiritual significance.

Today, tamales are still closely tied to religious festivals across Mexico. During the lead up to Day of the Dead in late October, street vendors sell tamales wrapped in banana leaves, while tamales stuffed with red pork and anise form centerpieces for ofrenda altars. At Christmas, there are tamales de dulce with cinnamon and sugar. On Candelaria in February, families take Epiphany blessings while eating green corundas tamales.

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Spanish Influence Shaped Modern Tamale

When Spanish colonists arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they brought with them ingredients and cooking techniques that would forever transform the tamale. While corn masa and symbolic wrapping methods persisted, the stuffings, seasonings and preparation shifted to incorporate Spanish sensibilities and available livestock. According to food historian Rachel Laudan, this collision between Mesoamerican and European foodways ultimately “produced the hybrid cuisine that is Mexican today.”

The most noticeable impact was the introduction of pork and beef to tamale fillings. Cattle and pigs were brought to Mexico by the Spanish as viable livestock for colonist settlements. Diaz del Castillo wrote of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin’s fascination when shown the “big pigs” carried on Spanish ships. The hardy pigs that escaped quickly turned feral across Mexico and became a new meat source.

While the Spanish initially eschewed many native foods, they eagerly adopted pork tamales which aligned with their love of cured hams and sausage. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, “the colonial pig met the precolonial tamal, producing a culinary mestizaje.” Chili peppers were paired with pork to create fillings similar to Spanish chorizo. Chicken and turkey remained popular too, but beef and pork opened entirely new flavor profiles.
Beyond new meats, rice, raisins, almonds and spices like anise entered the tamal palette as Spanish pantries diversified. Olive oil and pork lard replaced native vegetable oils for cooking the masa. Tamales were occasionally wrapped in parchment paper instead of corn husks in imitation of Spanish dishes. Even now you can find tamales with Spanish-origin fillings like mole rojo with red rice, or raisin-studded tamales wrapped in banana leaves for Day of the Dead.

While fillings transformed, the symbolic meanings behind tamales remained even as indigenous religions were suppressed. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, “tamales persisted as a powerful marker of cultural identity.” The familiar steaming process, corn husk wrapping and sacred masa dough kept alive indigenous food traditions even as Christianity dominated.

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Every Region Has Its Own Style

When it comes to tamales, Mexico’s regional diversity shines through in the vast array of styles and flavors crafted across the country. Just as the landscapes, music, and traditions vary widely from state to state, so too do tamales reflect local ingredients, customs and tastes. For travelers, this means an exciting chance to journey across Mexico sampling tamales as distinct as the places they come from.

In corn-rich Oaxaca, be on the lookout for tamales wrapped in dried corn leaves instead of husks. Called tamales oaxaqueños, they are stuffed with slow-simmered moles - rich, complex sauces made from chili peppers, spices, nuts, seeds and chocolate. The renowned black mole negro and fiery red mole coloradito encapsulate Oaxaca’s culinary soul. Banana leaf wrapped tamales colados stuffed with tender corn kernels drenched in savory broth are also prized.

Up north, the borderlands dish out hearty tamales packed full of meat. In Baja, savor pork tamales laced with hot chilies and cheese, or try unusual varieties stuffed with shrimp, clams and fish reflecting the surrounding sea. Crumble fresh cheese inside masa pockets for tamales sin relleno from Sonora and Chihuahua. And beef rules the day in tamales norteños - their compact shape allowing for maximum meaty fillings.

The Gulf shores keep seafood front and center with Veracruz’s tamal de camarón enveloping sweet, plump shrimp in masa tinted red by achiote seasoning. Grab a refresco to tame the heat of Tabasco’s piquant tamales wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with roast pork in fiery adobo sauce. Sweet tooths rejoice for Yucatán’s ultra-tender tamalito de dulce perfumed by anise seed and orange flower water.
Vibrant celebrations across Mexico have their own celebratory tamales. Day of the Dead sees velvety tamales de ceniza arrive stuffed with chicken or cheese and wrapped in rustic corn husks or aromatic banana leaves. Rosy pink tamales de guayaba con queso are Christmas morning staples in Veracruz. And on Candlemas in early February, pilgrims flock to try Mexico City’s chongos zamoranos - sticky, cylindrical tamales layered with sugar, cinnamon and queso fresco.

For a true tamal tasting tour, time your travels with destinations’ annual National Tamale Fairs held between November and February. In Oaxaca, Chiapa de Corzo and Ciudad Victoria, gather with thousands of fellow tamale lovers to sample hundreds of varieties all in one place alongside music, dancing and more. Just pace yourself – no one wants a tamale coma!

Unwrapping the Ancient Secrets of Mexico's 2,000-Year-Old Tamale - Tamales Still Central to Mexican Cuisine

From Día de La Candelaria’s cardboard-boxed dozens to Christmas morning’s still-steaming styrofoam platefuls, tamales remain woven into the very fabric of Mexican holiday festivities and family gatherings. But their significance goes far deeper than just celebratory nostalgia. Despite the ubiquity of modern conveniences like refrigerators and imported ingredients at stores, tamales have endured in Mexico as more than just food - they represent community, tradition, and regional identity.

As chef Gustavo Arellano told NPR, “The tamal binds Mexico together - North, South, Center. Every part of Mexico has its own variation of the tamal.” For Mexicans, loving tamales is akin to loving the distinctive salsas, moles, and stewed meats that define home. Just as mariachis recall cherished memories of abuelas and tías, so too does the masa-scented steam from a freshly unwrapped tamal.

This is especially pronounced during festive times as family members come together to prepare batches of tamales before celebrations, just as they have for generations. Anthropologist Jeffrey Pilcher described witnessing this during a sojourn to Mexico City, noting how “for many families, making tamales on Christmas Eve is more important than the exchange of gifts.”

Even as globalization contributes to dietary changes across Mexico, food writer Gustavo González Rodríguez believes, “the tamal is safe. It has survived the MacDonald’s and Burger King invasions...preserving its identity and loyalty to consumers.” Their versatility and austerity has allowed tamales to thrive from lavish feasts to everyday sustenance.

American travelers Katie and Ben described how an invitation to join a Zapotec family’s tamalada (tamal-making fest) in Oaxaca gave them new insight into, “how seriously Mexicans take their tamales, and how tamales bring people together.” Fellow California traveler Amanda G. raved that the tamales from street vendor Tacos La Guera in Mexico City tasted, “like nostalgia and comfort in the best possible edible form.”

For Conan Castillo, a poet and musician in Los Angeles, homemade tamales are his strongest link to fond memories of his mother and grandmother in Guerrero. He wistfully recalls their hands “mixing the masa, stuffing the hojas, tying the tamales, placing them carefully into the steamer.” Tamales have become Conan’s way of sharing his cultural heritage with his own kids.

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