Tamales Here, Tamales There

| November 18, 2010

Homogeneity is dead. When it comes to food, that is. From ancient crops to meats to the spices that make them savory, food is a timeless element of our human reality that is driven to innovate.

Cake: A food for all occasions, wouldn't you agree? Yum.

No one wants to eat boring. So we celebrate colors, robust flavors, textures, scents and the stories that bring them all together. And no time is that more evident than during the holidays. Being from a Latin American country (Peru), we are choc-full of holidays—besides the Christmases and Easters, there are Saint’s Days, Independence Days, Birthdays, you-name-it-days.

Now that American Thanksgiving is upon us, people all over the U.S. are ready to bust out their finest—all in celebration of giving thanks for friends and family. And those of us with origins in other nations and living in the diaspora are no different. In addition to the typical turkey, ham and fixings, each culture brings their own to the table. And for many Latin Americans, this can include distinct versions of none other, than the tamale.

Ground white corn, ready to get all gussied up

In Peru, there are three distinct geographical regions: costa, sierra y selva—the coast, the highlands and the jungles. While my family is Indigenous, hailing from the sierra in the Andes, we love getting together with our coastal friends to exchange recipes and eat each other’s foods, especially since coastal dishes reflect a diversity of cultural integrations, from chifa (Peruvian Chinese) to Afro-Peruvian and Indigenous foods, spices and cooking techniques. The tamale is one such food that binds us together through not only its taste and texture, but also its labor intensive preparation.

Yellow chiles soaking in preparation for their appearance

Varying from region to region, from country to country, the tamale has a distinct local character drawing from common ingredients—generally ground corn, some type of filling and wrapped in its signature corn husk.

Corn husks soaking in water

The tamale can be oven-baked, steamed, and in the case of the Wanka (my people), the tamale, called umita (pronounced oo-mee-ta) is made with fresh ground green corn, sweetened and then baked in the earth with hot stones called Pachamanka (prounounced pa-cha-ma-n-ka). However, today, in honor of our coastal friends, the coastal-style tamale from Peru’s capital city of Lima is featured here.

Tamale filling with chile-covered chicken and Lima-signature egg and olive

One of the things I love most about the tamale preparation, assembling, cooking and eating is the time spent in the kitchen with other women. It’s a time of sharing scandalous gossip, exchanging ideas and stories and of real artistry.

Tamales happily cooking away

So this holiday season or any time of celebration in your life, I wish you closeness with family and friends, remembrance of traditions and origins, and the delicious taste of life in a beautiful meal. Happy Holidays—both here and there!

Peruvian Coastal Tamales

Peruvian coastal tamales (courtesy of our family friend, Zoila Bolívar)

(Makes approximately 3 dozen tamales, depending on the amount of filling and size of tamale)

4 ½ lbs Dried and peeled corn (maiz)
2 lbs Instant corn masa flour (powdered corn especially for tortillas, tamales, etc) (2lbs)
4 medium-sized onions (purple, white or yellow)
½ lb shortening (and lard)
1 head of garlic
½ lb of dried red chiles (see aji colorado preparation)
6 dried yellow chiles (see aji colorado preparation)
4 lbs chicken or pork
2 tbsp salt (one tbsp when cooking the meat)
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp cumin
6 hard boiled eggs (optional—although this is Lima-style)
1 small jar of pitted olives (optional)
Foil (optional—to wrap the tamales)
String (optional—to tie the tamales)
1 large 8oz package of corn husks

*This recipe may require large and deep pots, depending on how many tamales you want to make.

White corn preparation (It is recommended to do this the night before): Take the dried white corn and soak (2 hours). When the corn is soft, remove the “nose” or hard part of the tip of the corn kernel. Drain and towel-dry the corn, then grind the corn using a blender. The corn will emerge pulverized in powder-form. Put the now powdered corn into a large pot. Set aside.


Aji colorado preparation: Soak dried red chiles and dried yellow chiles for 1 hour or until very soft. Make sure to remove all seeds. Remove any hard particles, like tough or discolored skin. Some cooks prefer to completely remove all skin. This will be your preference. Then liquefy. Set aside.


Corn husks preparation: Soak the corn husks until softened. It does not take long for this to occur. It is recommended that you use the entire package since some husks may be smaller than others and you may have to use two or three husks for one tamale. Set aside.


Chicken/meat preparation: Cut the chicken into large bite size chunks. Boil the chicken in about 6 cups or more of water with one tbsp of salt, as if making chicken soup. You can also add chicken stock cubes if you like once the “soup” starts boiling. Do not discard the broth. You want to make sure you have about 5 or 6 cups of broth that will be added to the tamale mixture for additional flavor. Set aside.


To make the tamale filling using all ingredients:

  1. Chop the onions into blendable pieces, add the entire head of garlic and place into a blender to be liquefied until smooth.
  2. Heat a saucepan on medium-high heat, coat with a little cooking oil and then add the onion/garlic mixture. Add the white pepper and cumin. Cook for at least 30 minutes or until the mixture becomes more solid and not watery. The mixture will darken in color. Stir, until much of the water is evaporated from the mixture and it is more creamy in texture rather than watery. Slowly pour in the chile mixture and stir. Cook, stirring the total mixture together, for 15 minutes. This is called aji colorado.
  3. In the meanwhile, take the powdered corn in the large pot that you’ve set aside and add to it the instant corn masa. Stir the dry mixture together. Then, add the chicken broth that you’ve saved from boiling the chicken, to the dry mixture. Stir. Add in the majority of the cooked aji colorado and stir. Make sure to save some of the mixture to add together with your cooked chicken—enough to produce a chile coating of the chicken. Set the chicken aside once again.
  4. The entire corn/aji colorado mixture is then put to simmer on the stove over medium heat. The heat will thicken the mixture towards the final product, which is a thick, gooey (not watery) consistency. When the mixture reaches this consistency, let it cool and set aside. When it cools, it will thicken even more into a final paste-like product that we will use to slather on the corn husks.
  5. Now it’s time for the corn husks! Drain the water that the husks have been soaking in and pat them dry. Slather on one or two husks some of the corn mixture, add in pieces of the chicken and if desired, one or two pitted olives and one or two sliced pieces of the hard-boiled eggs, and then slather with the corn mixture again. You can either tie the corn husks together with corn husk strips that you tear off yourself or wrap in foil and then tie with string.
  6. In a large pot(s) of boiling water, immerse the foil-covered tamales, making sure no filling is coming out of the foil or the corn husks. Boil for one hour to one hour and half, depending on the size of tamale you’ve made.
  7. Drain all water and allow the tamales to cool. Do not unwrap until cooled or else the tamales will be soggy.

Check us out on November’s YBR!

And on Hearth and Soul!

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Category: Main Dish - Land and Sea, Mexico, Lat & South America, Recipe Vault, Travel & Culture, US & Canada

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  1. November’s YBR Roundup, Simply Amazing! | February 23, 2012
  1. Kat says:

    Oops! We had accidentally turned off the comments on this post without noticing.

  2. this is amazing, the colors, ingredients, would love to learn how to make a meal like this very different from what we are used to amazing cake!

  3. rebecca says:

    wow thanks for sharing your food culture so much fun

  4. Patty says:

    Liz, Thanks so much for another beautifully written piece about your people and their contribution to the culinary world. I have tasted a tamale ONCE in my life, but would love to try them again – perhaps I will attempt to recreate your magic in my kitchen. xoxoxoxoxo

  5. denise says:

    I’ve never seen such a detailed and informative post on tamales. Love the background and cultural nuance! Coming here is always such an education…

  6. I think many Americans have forgotten how much fun it can be to be in the kitchen together. I would love to have tamale making party and make your fabulous tamales. Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Kristen says:

    Receiving tamales from our Latin friends at Christmas is one of the treats I especially look forward to. I have never been brave enough to try them myself, but there is always next year!

  8. Miz Helen says:

    We have Tamales every Christmas. Thank you for sharing your recipe with us.
    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  9. Melynda says:

    Good instructions! I am a Tamale lover, and this is one recipe I am ready to make. Thanks.

  10. girlichef says:

    I have always wanted to make this style of tamale…it is so mouthwatering! Thank you for the story and fabulous instructions…perhaps they are in my future 😉 And thanks for sharing them w/ the hearth and soul hop this week, as well 😀

  11. Kirby says:

    I love, love, love tamales! These sound wonderful!

  12. I have never seen or eaten tamales (not something we get too much of in New Zealand), but I loved learning about them and about the traditions of your people. I hope to try these one day.
    Sue 🙂

  13. Christine says:

    Yummy! I love tamales. This is the first time I’ve seen olives added. I also think this is a great recipe to use leftover turkey.

  14. Sommer says:

    I adore tamales! These looks very exciting indeed! What big flavors. Thanks for sharing the recipe and history!

  15. Inspirational post. Thank you!

  16. This is something I have always wanted to try and made…Thank you so much for this post and wonderful tutorial 🙂

  17. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. It’s so great to learn how other fellow Latinos incorporate their own version and food traditions into their adopted countries. Your tamales look delicious! Thanks for sharing and for participating in the YBR this month:)

  18. fooddreamer says:

    I love tamales, although I’ve only ever had them steamed. When I lived in Arizona, I was very charmed by the tradition many people had of having tamales on Xmas eve. In Canada, we always had tourtiere (a French-Canadian meat pie).

  19. Liz says:

    @Claudia, Rebecca, Kirby, Sommer and Cooking with Coley: Thank you for your kind comments!
    @Denise and Couscous: Thanks for the feedback re: Zomppa and its mission on food and cultural education! It’s so kind of you to read and comment!
    @Barbara: YES! Tamale party here we come!
    @Kristen, Melynda and girlichef:It is a time-consuming process, but totally worth it. We freeze the tamales left over and then re-heat them using a conventional oven and because of the wrapping and foil, they stay nice and moist!
    @Miz Helen: Fabulous! Christmas is exactly the time to eat them!
    @Christine: GREAT idea re: leftover turkey!
    @Magic: Thanks for the feedback and I do hope you try them!
    @Nancy: Thank you for your comment–it is really heart-warming to have a sense of fellowship amongst Latin Americans living in other places!
    @fooddreamer: Thank you for sharing your xmas eve tradition! Meat pies are among my favorite!