Tamales, a holiday dish from ancient times

Day 4 in our ChristmasCalendar2019!
Food: Tamales

One of the things that I miss the most during the holidays from my home country Honduras is the traditional food. Nacatamales, a variety of tamal, are my favorite, especially during Christmas day when I will have one for brunch with a fresh and warm cup of coffee. This ancient dish from Mesoamerica is still alive in many Latin American countries and every country has different varieties and names. Their origin is unclear, some authors have suggested that the origin of tamales could come from Mesoamerica between 8000 and 5000 years BC. Only recently, archeologists  Karl Taube, William Saturno, and David Stuart found pictorial references in the Mural of San Bartolo, in Petén, Guatemala that suggest their origin around 100 years BC.

Group of ingredients for the elaboration of Tamales. Image by stock.adobe.com

But before I continue I have to explain what a tamal is. The word “tamal” comes from the Nahuált Tamali, which means “wrapped”. The tamal main ingredient is the masa (corn dough) and depending on the type of tamal it will have different ingredients.  Now, Nacatamal comes from the words Tamali and Nacatl, which means “wrapped and meat”. When I was a child my grandma used to make nacatamales a few days before Christmas. She would prepare most of the ingredients one day in advance and on the day when they were finally prepared and wrapped, they would be boiled for a few hours. One of my earliest memories from preparing tamales is waking up at 4 am and going with our maid to the mill to grind the corn that was already Nixtamalized, an ancient process with many benefits. Then, Grandma would start the process of making the tamales and cook them in our backyard. She used to make two types, some with salty masa and some with sweet masa. My favorite, of course, was the sweet type. And almost every year I would enjoy grandma’s sweet nacatamales or have at least one while visiting friends during the holidays.

Corn smut inside a clay pot, next to maize. Image by stock.adobe.com

In 2007 I came to Sweden for a few months to take courses at Karolinska Institutet and to work at my application to become a Licentiate candidate. Because of some delays, I had to extend my stay and spend Christmas and New Year in Sweden. That same year, a fellow colleague and friend from Honduras also had to stay during the Holidays. It was one of the first times we were so far away from home and our families. To help us deal with the nostalgia we decided to prepare this traditional food. What we didn’t expect was that some of the ingredients were difficult to find. At the time we couldn’t find banana leaves, quite essential for the Nacatamales taste. Only in recent years, I have seen them in Asian markets. The next was the masa flour. It was difficult to find the brand that I wanted but I managed and I still buy it in the same place. The last one was a bit of a nightmare, the achiote or annatto condiment (in Sweden known also as roucou, orlean or orleana). This is a condiment native from America which is also used as a pigment. What we didn’t realize is that it can have different names depending on the country of use. In the end, we were only missing the banana leaves. But I used one of my grandma’s solutions. Instead of the banana leaves, we used aluminum foil. Well, after a full day of cooking we got our own version of tamales. At least I was satisfied with the consistency of the masa and the rest of the contents. The taste from the banana leaves was missing but we kept the tradition of having Nacatamales for the holidays and we were also able to share them with our Swedish friends.

Tamales preparation with banana leaves and cornmeal. Image by stock.adobe.com

Recently, I asked my friend and colleague if she will do them again. She said, “it is certainly easier to find the ingredients (referring to the banana leaves), for sure it is a lot of work (of course we could do them together again), but this time I want to do them with my child (which I think is a wonderful idea). This time is about sharing a tradition with my new family”. And I couldn’t agree more.

I have previously shared traditional food from my country with friends and colleagues at KI and now I share it with my Swedish family. Do you have any traditional food to share during the holidays?


Irina Jovel-Dalmau, PhD

KI Alumni that just finished her transition from Academia.

Featured image by stock.adobe.com

Some of the text was adapted from Honduras is Great post Tamal y nacatamal no son lo mismo, ¿de donde vienen?

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