Everyone loves tamales. They are a culinary fixture so beloved that the name has outpaced even the knowledge of what they are, and their appearance on party platters and restaurant menus results in instant delight. But what are tamales, exactly, and how does one bring them into one’s home?
First things first: plural tamales, singular tamal. Anglophones often say “tamale” in singular, misapprehending the Spanish plural suffix -es, and one shows cultural knowledge by getting it right. This name derives from the Nahuatl tamalli, for the original version of this concept made in central Mexico.
It is in Mexico that the tamal first saw its quintessential form, a corn-based dough with a meat or vegetable filling, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. Mexico’s tamales are noteworthy for making use of masa harina, the nixtamalized corn flour I showcase in other recipes here, which creates a more cohesive dough than raw cornmeal while also unlocking more of corn’s nutrition. Tamales have long since spread from their origin culture to the rest of Latin America, first via indigenous contacts and then through the Spanish. Puerto Rico has a particular abundance of variations, including guanimes, pasteles, and arguably alcapurrias, distinguished from the original Mexican tamal by using local ingredients in addition to or instead of corn for the dough and by their characteristic fillings. In Cuba, by contrast, the preferred tamal variation hews closely to the Mexican recipe, differing mainly in its use of pork as a common filling. It is after Spanish contact that tamales met what, in my and many others’ opinion, is their most crucial partner: the banana leaf.
Bananas are native to southeast Asia and did not reach the Americas until Spanish and Portuguese sailors transplanted them. Bananas, both dessert and cooking, rapidly became iconic Latin American fixtures in their own right, and one surprising role they took on was providing their large leaves as alternative wraps for tamales. The banana leaf imparts a mildly sweet, earthy flavor to tamales so wrapped, spawning a whole new style that became the default in many parts of Latin America.
All this backstory is necessary to understand the tamal variation I present here. The tamales I know and love from my own childhood are a mix of various traditions, spawning something uniquely ours and, as of this writing, just as uniquely yours. In this version, the dough is made with masa harina much as it is in many Mexican tamales, the filling is Cuban-style pulled pork, and the whole is wrapped in a banana leaf to steam.
Small tamales are often served as appetizers prior to a larger meal, while large ones (or more smaller ones) can be served as a main course. They are traditionally served with a sauce, often hot sauce.
As written here, this recipe makes at least 21 tamales and likely a few more, enough to feed seven or more people. Although it is trivial to make less dough and excess filling can usually be frozen or used some other way, banana leaves are usually sold frozen in one-pound / 454-gram packages. Making partial use of one of these packages can be tricky. Because of how labor-intensive preparing and cooking tamales is, this is often considered a social affair, with an entire family getting together to assemble, wrap, and steam many tamales. Some will be eaten right away, but others will be frozen for future occasions. Tamales can be frozen before or after steaming, but after steaming provides the best results.
For the filling, use my Cuban-style pulled pork recipe. Filling a tamal is a flexible endeavor, however, so feel free to switch in a similar mass of alcapurria filling or even something based on Cuban frita burgers if you’re feeling adventurous.
For the dough, you will need a large mixing bowl, your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a mixing tool, and a large spoon. Due to the intensity of the required mixing, it is recommended to use an electric mixer; a stand mixer is ideal.
For the wrap, you will need a ruler and a set of kitchen shears.
For final assembly, you will need cooking twine. This can be substituted with strips of leftover banana leaf (see below), but this will be more fragile. You will also need a large setup for steaming, the larger the better, and the associated bottom-up heat source. A dedicated tamalera is ideal, but is likely impractical to own for anyone who is not making tamales routinely.
Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.
- Frozen banana leaves, one 1-lb (454g) package. If you have access to fresh banana leaves, use those instead.
- This recipe assumes an entire pork shoulder was used to make the filling, approximately 12 pounds or 5.5 kilograms. This provides the amount of filling needed for enough tamales to expend the indicated amounts of dough and banana leaves.
- Variations: There are as many tamal fillings as there are people and cultures that make tamales. Try the same filling used in alcapurrias or a Mexican chile-based filling instead, but watch out for the amount needed to match the rest of the recipe.
- 7.5 cups masa harina
- 6 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 tablespoons sazón
- 3 cups cold lard. Substitute butter, vegetable shortening, or coconut oil.
- 3 cups chicken or beef broth
- 4.5 cups hot water
- Hot sauce to taste.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: As written, this recipe is gluten-free. Pay attention to the ingredients in the filling.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe showcases carbohydrates and cannot be made low-carb.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions, but watch out for garlic and other potential hazards in the sazón and pay attention to the ingredients in the filling.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Use a vegetable-derived fat in the dough and a vegetable filling. Tamales are also lovely with no filling at all.
The Night Before
- Thaw the banana leaves in the refrigerator.
- Prepare the filling first according to its recipe and let it cool.
- Cut the banana leaves into 8” by 8” (20 cm by 20 cm) squares, orienting so as to leave torn or damaged parts of the leaves out of the squares as excess.
- Rinse the squares and set aside to dry.
- Reserve the excess for use in patching any damage done to the squares during assembly.
- Combine the masa harina, baking powder, and sazón in a large mixing bowl and mix well.
- Divide the lard into small pieces and add it to the bowl.
- Add the broth and hot water to the bowl and mix intensely until the mixture is a smooth dough. This is best done with an electric mixer and is particularly well suited to a stand mixer. Continue until the appearance of flecks of unmixed lard is minimized. Depending on the size of your vessels, you may have to prepare the dough in 2-3 batches.
- Make a roughly 4” by 6” (10 cm by 15 cm) flat rectangle of dough roughly ½” (1 cm) high near the center of a banana leaf square.
- Spread approximately two tablespoons of filling over the dough, pressing it into the dough with the back of a spoon.
- Gently use the banana leaf to help the dough enclose the filling, and then roll it shut. Gently fold in the ends to enclose the tamal. If the wrap split along its length, add a scrap of banana leaf over the damaged area.
- Secure the tamal with at least two pieces of string tied in place, one lengthwise, one across its width. For a large or fragile-looking tamal, use more string.
- Assemble as many tamales as fit within your steamer before proceeding on to the next step, and repeat Final Assembly steps 1-4 with any remaining materials while those tamales steam.
- Steam in a steamer for 80 to 90 minutes, replenishing water as needed.
- Remove from heat and let sit covered in steamer for 30 more minutes.
- Serve with scissors and hot sauce.
Tamales are another entry in the labor-intensive but eminently rewarding canon of Hispanic cuisine, and I hope you all enjoy this iteration.