Tamales, tamales, tamales….


Un tamal rojo y un tamal verde

Every night around seven, an old truck rumbles down our street in colonia Emiliano Zapata in Puerto Vallarta. The truck’s makeshift sound system blares, “tamales, tamales, tamales…tamales rojo, tamales verde, tamales d’elote…tamales, tamales.”

It is a song I love to hear. The chant and rhythm remind me of seafood vendors I heard in coastal North Carolina when I was young.

The word tamal derives from the Nahuatl, one of the core indigenous languages of Mexico, word for wrapper. Tamales is the plural form.

A good argument can be made that tamales are the New World’s first portable fast food.  Anthropologists studying Mayan eating habits believe they were eating tamales as early as 8,000 BC.

Their wrappers are fully biodegradable and their contents are basic real food—plastics and processed food products need not apply. You can put a couple of tamales in your pocket, eat them on a hike and drop the wrapper in the forest with little harm to our environment. Tamales are the perfect food for the traveler, warrior or someone just trying to carry supper home.

The wrappers are usually made of cornhusks or plantain leaves, but may be other things. For example, the Purepecha Indians of the state of Michoacan and nearby areas have a tamales variation called corundas. They wrap these tamales in acelga, chard. Usually, they are served covered with crema and salsa verde—not so portable, but delicious.

Inside the wrapper, there is a layer of masa, a corn mush dough, and a filling of pork, chicken, fish, iguana, or other surprises. The filling may include cheese, chiles and one of many sauces, salsas. They cook in a tamalera, a big covered steam pot, until done.



A Mexican friend and his wife came to our kitchen one evening and made vegetarian tamales. They mixed most of the veggies into the masa with a filling of cheese and strips of jalapeño peppers.

We frequently make big batches of tamales and freeze them in four packs for lunches. We have made our own chicken, pork and vegetarian tamales—all are delicious.