Tamales can be traced back to as early as 7000 B.C. in Pre-Columbian history, when the Aztec women were taken along in battle as cooks for the army. They made the masa for the tortillas, stews, drinks, etc. But as the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures grew, there was a need to have a more portable yet sustainable food and the tamales could be made ahead of time, packed and warmed as needed. This requirement demanded the creativity of the women and the tamale was born.
Originally, the tamales were cooked by burying them in hot ashes, which made them crispy and brown. However, as time progressed, the Aztecs began to implement new methods for cooking, learned from the Spanish conquistadores. At which point, steaming the tamales in underground pits became a lesser practice and steaming them in pots became the practice. When steaming the tamales, the Aztecs believed that the tamales sticking to the bottom of the pot was a sign of good luck, and would protect them of the dangers on the battleground.
The tamales changed in size, color, shape, and filling, depending on the location and the resources available. The wrappings varied from cornhusks, to soft tree bark, to edible leaves, such as those from avocados and bananas. Even fabric was sometimes used. Today, the most common variety of tamales are composed of masa (hominy flour dough) spread on a corn shuck and filled with either chicken, pork, beef, green chile, cheese, or, more recently, vegetables. Another thing that has changed is the use of the tamale as an every day food.
Unlike in Aztec society, today’s tamale tradition is as much about making them as it is about eating them. There is nothing different about “Christmas” tamales, other than they are made for Christmas. However, because the preparation is so time and labor intensive, tamales have become associated more with the Christmas holidays and special occasions. Perhaps because these are times that family and friends come together and thus can work together to prepare the masa and to make the sauces and meats. The kitchen is converted into an assembly line to wrap the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove.
The process for making tamales takes all day and preparations often start one or two days prior. Therefore, making just a few tamales is rarely heard of. Making tamales has become a social event, often referred to as a tamalada, where people come together to make new friendships and strengthen old ones.
Today, the influence of tamales has expanded beyond the Hispanic community and is loved by all cultures.
Here is a short list of our favorite tamales:
Cuquita’s Restaurant: Owned by the Villafranca family and located in Farmers Branch, Cuquita’s is proud of their tamales, as they should. The airy tamal is heavy on meat and light on masa making for an excellent example of a tamale. Cuquito’s recently made the list of Texas Monthly’s best and for a good reason. They make tamales daily to keep up with demand, and also are famous for their handmade corn tortillas made with the same masa.Their jalapeno and tomatillo salsa is also a good accompaniment.
Luna’s Tortilla: Founded in 1924 the family operated factory provides tortillas, tamales and other hand crafted specialties to many local restaurants and hotels, but they also sell direct to the public out of their tiny Harry Hines factory. You will find daily breakfast and lunch specials to take-away but the big seller during holidays are the tamales. Luna’s takes orders early and will sell out quickly, spending days and nights working to fill the many orders. What makes Luna’s so very special is their masa; it is made from scratch daily and receives regular shipments of corn stored in the silo found in the front of the building. They also believe that a tamale should be more meat that masa, a formula many cooks seem to forget. Luna’s has already started taking New Years orders and offers free champagne and a mariachi band noon on the 31st.
Tortilleria Tuzantla: Hot on the tamale scene in Oak Cliff, Tortilleria Tuzantla is family owned and operated with four generations of the Martinez family. Although their specialty lies in the tortillas they make, the tortilleria also hand spreads many dozens of tamales catering most to Day of the Dead, Christmas and New Years, but has them available through out the year in many varieties of fillings.
La Popular Tamale House: Located in East Dallas la Popular is extremely popular for tamales. I am generally leery of restaurants with their featured item in their name (see: Chili’s), but Popular lives up to the name serving a wide range of tamales. For the less intrepid food traveler you may also find the tasty tamale in Shed #2 at the Dallas Farmers Market. Although not extremely large, the tamale is packed with flavor and priced well.
La Victoria: Rounding up the list for our favorite tamales is another East Dallas gem.Serving sturdy enchiladas, homemade tortillas, and delightful tamales La Victoria receives top honors on all fronts. The La Victoria tamale is firm, fat and filled to the brim of their husks with a flavorful assortment of meats. The seating is limited but they sell the tamales by the dozen to go for your big holiday party.
Finally, Stephan Pyles makes a savory starter at Flora Street in Dallas with a sweet corn custard perched on a liquid tamale guajillo chile-flavored nixtamal, micro-greens and edible flora, topped with butter-poached Maine lobster, black garlic purée, pickled corn, and paddlefish caviar, and the crystal glass is rimmed with ancho powder and more of the caviar with a lemon puree. It is masterful in its brilliance.