Tamales exists in many different version throughout Latin America, and is essentially a starchy corn dough steamed in a corn husk, banana leaf, plantain leaf or some other suitable leaf that grows in your area. You can add pretty much anything to the corn dough before you wrap it up, and popular extras include meats, cheese, vegetables and chili pepper. To add even more flavor, tamales can be cooked in a spicy liquid instead of just plain water.


Sweet versions of tamal exists (tamal de dulce), where sugar, raisins and other sweet dried fruit is added to the dough before steaming. In modern Mexico, the sugar of choice for sweet tamales is pink-colored.


Making tamales is a time-consuming endeavor and tamales are usually prepared for special occasions and celebrations, including Cinco de Mayo, Día de Muertos, Las Posadas and La Candelaria. There are also street vendors that specializes in tamales, making them available for both breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the year from their hot and steaming tamaleras.


In Mexico, tamales are usually prepared using masa or masa mix, which is nixtamalized corn. The nixtamalization makes it easier for the human body to obtain certain nutrients from the corn.


The tamale tradition

Tamales has been eaten in Mesoamerica for thousands of years, and the Aztecs, the Maya, the Olmeca and the Tolteca all have various tamales in their cosine. Of course, the tamal has developed over time as new food products has become available in the region. Traditionally, the tamal was eaten by soldiers, hunters and other travelers since it is so conveniently packaged.


The Aztecs filled their tamales with various meats that were available to them, including turkey, frog, fish and salamanders, and were also known to add turkey eggs, beans, fruits, honey, and vegetables such as squash (although not necessarily within the same tamale!). As far as we know, they did not add fat to the tamale.


From the Dresden Codex, we know that they pre-Columbian Mayas ate several different types of tamale, including iguana tamale, deer tamale, fish tamale and turkey tamale.

Recipe for Mexican pork tamales (appr. 40 tamales)

Ingredients for the corn dough

  • Approximately 1.5 liter of masa harina (add more if needed)
  • 2 tablespoons of cumin
  • 1 tablespoon of chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon of paprika powder
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of pepper
  • 2 tablespoons of baking powder
  • 2.5 dl of lard
  • 1.5 liters of broth (you will make your own when you cook the pork early on in this recipe)


Ingredients for the meat filling

  • 1.5 kilograms of shoulder pork
  • 5 liters of water
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cumin
  • 1 tablespoon of achiote paste (also known as recado rojo)


Ingredients for the sauce (mole)

  • 10 dried chipotle chillies (soaked till soft, then diced)
  • 3 medium yellow onions, chopped
  • 400 grams of tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of cumin
  • 1 tablespoon of dried oregano
  • 2.5 dl of masa harina


A few other things that you will need

  • Wrappers, i.e. 40 corn husks
  • A few extra corn husks to make strips from to tie the tamales
  • A large steamer
  • Saucepans or pots for boiling
  • Large mixing bowls
  • Water



  1. Remove the skin from the shoulder and chop the pork into big chunks.
  2. Place the pork chunks in a big pot and add the water. Add salt, pepper, cumin and anchiote paste. Bring to a boil, before reducing the heat down to a simmer. Leave to simmer under a lid for approximately 2 hours.
  3. The pork is ready when it can be easily shredded using two forks. Remove it from the pot and set aside. Do NOT discard the seasoned water – it is now a great broth that will come in handy when you prepare your tamales.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, combined masa harina with cumin, chili powder, paprika powder, salt, pepper, and baking powder.
  5. Add 1.5 liters of broth and beat in well. (Do not discard the remaining broth, you will need it for the mole.)
  6. Dissolve the lard (the easiest method is using a microwave) and beat it into the dough. Keep beating until the dough is a bit fluffy, it can take up to 10 minutes.
  7. Leave the dough to cool off (under a cover).
  8. Heat up water and add the husks to the water to soften them up. They will need about 30 minutes in the warm water to become soft enough. In the mean time, you can prepare the mole (chipotle sauce).
  9. Put the chopped onions in a saucepan and fry them over medium-high heat until they become to brown. Add tomatoes, chipotle, cumin and oregano, and stir in the remaining broth.
  10. Bring the mole to a boil, before reducing the heat to simmer. Add 2.5 dl of masa harina and stir until the mole starts to thicken. Leave the mole to cool.
  11. Take a few husks and shred them to provide you with strings for tying tamales.
  12. It is now time to prepare the pork-and-mole filling for your tamales. Shred the pork using forks or your fingers, and place the pork in a mixing bowl. Add mole until you have a mixture that is moist but not runny.
  13. We have now come to the part where you fill the tamales. Place one husk on a flat surface. Spread one tablespoon of masa dough over the husk, to within 2-3 cm of the edges. Place one tablespoon of pork-and-mole filling in the center of the masa. Pick up the ends of the husk and gently roll the masa dough over the filling to create a sort of tube. Flip up the ends of the tube and use husk-strings to tie the tamale together.
  14. Repeat until you have 20 tamales. Place your 20 tamales in the big water-filled steamer and steam for about 90 minutes. While this batch is steaming, you can prepare the rest of the tamales so that they are ready for steaming once the first batch is cooked. (This recipe yields about 40 tamales.)

If you aren’t holding a big Mexican fiesta, put the tamales in freezer bags and store in the freezer. They will be okay for at least 6 months. To reheat them, steam for 10 minutes or warm in the microwave for 3 minutes or so.