Did you know that tamales are not simply a delicious Mexican creation, but actually an ancient food staple? Created by the Aztecs using maize, their most important food, tamales were often filled with beans that were second only to maize in dietary importance. Other popular fillings included chilies, amaranth seeds, maize flowers, honey, beeswax, turkey, eggs and cherries.
Tamales played a significant role in the culture of the Aztecs. Tamales were central to the survival of the military who needed a portable but filling and healthy food. The tamale and its main ingredient maize were celebrated during the feast of Atamalcualiztli (Eating of Water Tamales), a seven-day event that took place every eight years. During the feast plain, steamed tamales with no “lime, ash, flavoring, chilies, and peppers” were eaten by the people. “This pure method of cooking the tamales ritually allowed the maize a moment of freedom from the tortures of being worked and seasoned.”
The following tamale recipe includes another link to the ancient past with the inclusion of the ingredient epazote. Also known as Mexican tea, the name comes from the Aztec (Nahuatl) epazotl. The Aztecs used it as both a culinary and a medicinal agent. It has a strong, distinctive flavor and is believed to reduce the digestive distress that sometimes accompanies the ingesting of beans.
So as you mix the dough, add the epazote to the beans and assemble and steam your tamales, keep in mind you are following an ancient tradition. Cook up some Mayan hot chocolate for dessert and you’ll have a true pre-Columbian feast!
Tamales with Black Beans
*Recipe courtesy of Cathy Kaufman, Chairperson of the Culinary Historians of New York.
Makes 15 tamales
Black bean filling:
- 2 cups black beans, soaked overnight
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon dried chili powder
- 2 guajillo chilies
- 2 chipotle chilies
- 1/3 cup dried epazote
- 1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 (to 2) tomatillos, husk removed
- 4 cups masa harina
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups warm water
- 15 corn husks, soaked in hot water to render pliable, or parchment paper
- Make the filling: Place the black beans, garlic, chili powder, dried chilies and epazote in a large pot and cover with fresh water by 2 inches. Bring to the boil and cook for one half hour. Add the 1 tablespoon salt and continue cooking until very tender. Drain. Transfer the solids to the work bowl of a food processor, add the tomatillos and coarsely chop.
- Make the tamale dough: Mix together the salt and masa harina in the bowl of a mixer. Slowly add the hot liquid, stirring to obtain a soft, moist dough. Beat the dough with the paddle attachment for five minutes to aerate the dough as much as possible. Sprinkle in the baking powder and beat 1 minute more. (Contemporary recipes contain lard, which results in a lighter product.)
- Assemble the tamales: Place a husk flat on the counter horizontally in front of you. Spread about 2 tablespoons of tamale dough in a thin layer over the husk, leaving a border around the edges. Top with about 1 tablespoon bean filling. Pull up the husks on the right and left edges and nudge the dough so that it folds over the filling. Then do the same with the top and bottom edges of the husk, so that the dough encases the filling and forms a rectangular packet. Fold the right and left sides of the husk over the dough packet, then fold the bottom of the husk up and the top of the husk down. Keep folding to make a neat package. Repeat with remaining husks.
- Place the tamales in a covered steamer and steam for 45 minutes, making sure that the steamer does not dry out. Serve immediately, or reheat by steaming.
1. Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2007). Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pg. 372.
2. Warner, Katie. The History Behind Tamales. http://www.examiner.com/article/the-history-behind-tamales