Mexicans love to say “We are the people of corn.” Corn is at the center of our identity, our culture, and our cuisine. The relationship between us and corn is symbiotic, codependent if you will. Corn is the one grain that cannot reproduce on its own (it requires the help of farmers to germinate); we give it life, and it returns the favor.
Corn helped foster civilization in Mexico, allowing ancient peoples of the area to end their nomadic ways and settle down, because corn mutates readily and adapts to any kind of soil, weather, altitude, or amount of rainfall — so peoples'
basic diet would be available wherever they stopped. (While doing research for my book The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico's Heart, I asked a Oaxacan gentleman how the financial crisis was affecting him and his family. He responded that it wasn’t at all, because their diet consisted of tortillas, beans, and chile sauce, and there was always plenty of that!)
The biggest breakthrough for the ancient Mexicans was the discovery that by soaking dried corn kernels in natural alkalis, such as a solution made from the calcium-rich sediment in dried lakebeds or the ash from wood fires, they could remove the tough outer coating, a process that makes essential amino acids available so that when the corn is combined with beans, a complete protein is formed. The process is called nixtamalization, and the treated grain, nixtamal, is a hominy-like kernel that is either used whole in soups and soup stews like pozole or ground to make the masa (dough) that is the foundation of an immensely varied repertoire of dishes.
The most basic form of masa dishes is the tortilla, but if tortillas are our daily bread, tamales have long been the celebratory food for all significant occasions in Mexico, even funerals. They are especially associated with the Christmas season, though. A cousin once walked into my restaurant right before Christmas and asked “Have you made your tamales?" That would be the equivalent to asking a non-Hispanic American: “Have you put up your Christmas tree?"
Every state has its own tamal specialties. At our ranch in Chihuahua, tamales with pork and red chile sauce were the norm during most of the year, but during corn season, friends drove miles to eat my mother’s savory tamales de elote, made with fresh corn. Most people make these sweet, but my mother made hers with a sauce of roasted green chiles and tomatoes. She worked onion in with her hands, spread the dough on fresh corn husks, put a slice of Mennonite cheese on top, and covered that with a little salsa.
My grandmother’s chicken, golden raisin, and olive tamales were de rigueur at Christmas in Sonora as were my mother’s tamales de dulce, tiny pillows of masa mixed with slivers of canela (soft stick cinnamon), anise seeds, and pine nuts, tinted a light pink. On our first trip down south when we were teenagers, we discovered tamales de mora, bright pink tamales mixed with a “jam” of fresh wild berries — and later, in Veracruz, the anthropologist and cookbook author Raquel Torres Cerdán introduced me to pineapple-coconut versions.
In the Baja California wine country, I sampled tamales wrapped in grape leaves. In the Yucatán peninsula, they use chaya — so-called tree spinach — and, at the market in Etla, in Oaxaca, I discovered the flavorful tamales en hoja de aguacate, a disk of masa held in place by two intensely anise-flavored avocado leaves. (There, too, I discovered a couscous-like dish called “masita.” Lightly seasoned pieces of goat, are placed on a perforated dish and, as they steam, the juices drip onto cracked nixtamal to form a sort of very flavorful mush they call masita.)
Tamal fillings add another dimension and here the sky is the limit, though you have to heed the wisdom of the popular saying "No hacer de chivo los tamales” — "Don’t make tamales with goat” — which isn't a culinary stricture but a colloquialism meaning "Don't cheat" or "Always keep your word."
In making most tamales, the masa is spread in a thin layer and then a spoonful of the prepared filling — be it chicken in mole, pork in red chile sauce, chicken with olives and raisins and green chiles, huitlacoche, or even just beans — is placed in the center, and the ends of the corn husks or banana leaves or other wrapping are folded in to encase the filling.
Chiapas state is widely considered to be the tamal capital of Mexico. Though I have never seen it, people tell me that every afternoon around 5 p.m., vendors descend from the hills and mountain towns and offer as many as 26 varieties of tamales for sale. The only tamales I remember from my trips there are finger-size tamales reales, made with saffron and raisins, and others called patzitos that are filled with pastry cream as a not-too-sweet dessert.