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Tamales Through Time: Fast Facts on the History of the Tamale

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The tamales are among the top comfort foods in Mexico. From its origins, the tamale now features 350 different regional and individual interpretations to date. But how did this seemingly simple treat gain prominence in Mexican cuisine and the global arena?

Perhaps, you can understand the context better when you wade through the history of the tamale.

  1. The term originated from the Aztec word “tamal.” Although “tamale” was attributed to the Aztecs, its beginnings date from 8000 B.C. to 5000 BC based on the Olmec and Toltec hieroglyphs that anthropologists discovered. For context, the Mayan Empire started about 1500 BC, and the Aztec Empire began in 1345 and ended in 1521.
  2. Although it’s not a widely known fact in the history of the tamale, a legend passed by word of mouth revealed that the Tzitzimitl, the powerful god Chicomexóchitl’s grandmother, supposedly sacrificed her grandson. Tzitzimitl then used her grandson’s meat to create the first 20 tamales.
  3. Although the Aztec term survived through this day, the Mayans referred to the tamale as “uah.” Meanwhile, the Yucatan has a different name for the food, and it’s called “pibs.” The invention of this food is closely associated with the cultivation of maize in Central America, particularly in Mexico, around 9000 BC.
  4. Based on the history of the tamale, the Spanish Conquistadores were primarily responsible for integrating the name into the modern lexicon. However, the Spanish Conquistadores created a divide when they introduced wheat, which the upper class began to use as a replacement for the traditional maize. Meanwhile, the rural populations and the tribes continued to use the cheaper corn flour.
  5. During the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920, the tamale played a prominent role as it has been described as the food of the masses. It essentially sustained the diet of the revolutionaries as they tried to oust the Federal Army. After the revolution, it catapulted the tamale to become the national food.
  6. The revolutionaries discovered what the Aztec warriors before them had always known: tamale is a portable and protein-rich food that would give them energy as they go into battle.
  7. It has also webbed in the fabric of U.S. history as Mexicans brought along their traditional food when they first lived in territories now known as New Mexico, California, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada.
  8. The rich history of the tamale still reverberates today through the many festivals throughout Mexico. The famous Coyoacán even draws participants from Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela who bring their own versions to the festival.

When you trace the history of the tamale, you will gain a much deeper appreciation of the food today. After all, humans were believed to be unworthy to partake of this food of the gods back then.

There was a reason why it took days to cook the dish, and that was because it was a labour of veneration. Perhaps one explanation for the various versions of the tamale today is that a different tamale was served for a specific god in ancient Mexico.

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