In our last blog post, we explored the delightful Yucatan crepe concoction called the marquesita. Today we’re putting our “Tastes of the Yucatan Peninsula” spotlight on a more widely known—and remarkably ancient—preparation: the tamale (or tamal).
Tamales are both beloved everyday food in Mexico and the centerpiece of many a communal feast and all-out party. They’re an absolute must-taste during your Isla Mujeres vacation: Take it from us!
Introducing the Tamale
We don’t think it’d be a stretch to call tamales one of the world’s perfect foods. They can be filled with all manner of ingredients, but the heart of the dish is the field-corn dough called masa. Accoutered with meat, chili peppers, cheese, veggies, fruits, seasonings (achiote is popular in the Yucatan), or whatever else, the masa is steamed within a neat parcel of cornhusk or banana leaf. Unwrap that package and dig into the piping-hot contents within: It’s a few minutes of heaven-on-Earth, if you ask us.
Masa Making: Nixtamalization
It’s a mouthful of a word, but thankfully it translates to a mouthful of wonderful flavor. Nixtamalization is the process of producing masa from field corn, and involves boiling the kernels in a solution of slaked lime (or, in Spanish, cal), aka calcium hydroxide. This breaks down the hull and makes the corn more nutritious, easier to digest, and more flavorful.
This soaked and boiled nixmatal or hominy is then ground into dough, which can thereafter be used to make tortillas or stuff tamales.
Much of the magic of eating a tamale in Isla Mujeres comes from the wonderful taste and texture of freshly ground masa—which certainly can make a world of difference compared with the powdered stuff so often used for the store-bought or fast-food tamales you may be used to from back home.
An Age-Old Mesoamerican Food
Bite into a tamale, and you’re going on a time-traveling journey of sorts. Tamales are a pre-Columbian foodstuff that may date to 7000 B.C. or older. They were a staple food of the Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, and Maya peoples, who used wood ash in the nixtamalization process. As today, fillings used in a centuries-old indigenous tamale were diverse, and may have included such exotic meats as iguana and frog.
Throughout their vastly long history, tamales have always brought people together. Making masa is a communal process; cooking tamales is communal. And, of course, eating tamales can be very much a communal process.
You don’t have to look hard to find street-food vendors and restaurant kitchens in Isla Mujeres serving up fresh tamales. It’s a quintessential flavor of Mexico, and one that evokes some magnificently deep history.