You know you love tamales, but do you know all the different types of tamales you can choose from?
I’m a Latina dietitian, and most of my clients want to know whether tamales are healthy. But there’s so much variety with tamales that it’s important to discuss the different options, flavors, and cooking techniques when talking about tamales and nutrition.
There are many different types of tamales across Latin America, from Mexican pork tamales wrapped in corn husks, to Venezuelan hallacas filled with stew and wrapped in banana leaves.
In this article I’ll review some of the most common types of tamales from across Latin America, and share some of the nutrition differences to keep in mind.
So let’s get started.
What are tamales?
A tamal is essentially corn dough stuffed with meat or vegetables, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, and steamed. This food is a staple across Latin America. Most Latin American countries feature some form of tamal as a special occasion or holiday food.
But there is a lot of variety when it comes to tamales. There are sweet tamales filled with fruits, savory tamales filled with meat or vegetables, and plain tamales with no filling at all.
The most common tamales are made with nixtamalized corn. But some varieties use fresh corn (elote), corn meal which is not nixtamalized, or even other carbs like rice flour, plantains, or yuca.
Tamales are a Christmas staple, but you’ll also see them served for Dia de los muertos, weddings, and more.
Now let’s dive in to some of the different types of tamales you’ll find in Latin American cuisine.
Types of tamales:
Not only does each region have its own take on the tamal, but there are different fillings. There are even dessert tamales (my favorite!).
Here’s a brief overview of different types of tamales by country.
You’re likely most familiar with Mexican tamales. Mexican tamales feature corn masa wrapped in a corn husk (some regions use banana leaves, more on that in a second).
Typically, the corn is dried, nixtamalized corn. However, you’ll see fresh corn (elote) tamales served as a dessert.
Fillings can include chicken, pork, mole, greens, and rajas (roasted poblano pepper strips). Dessert tamales are also common. These can include sweet corn, pineapple, or strawberry flavors.
As you know, Mexico is a huge country with a lot of different regions. Every region has its own unique cuisine and approach to tamales.
Here are some of the most famous examples of Mexican tamales:
- Tamales de chile colorado (pork in red chili sauce): Perhaps the most well-known type of tamal, featuring pork shoulder in a red chile ancho sauce.
- Tamales oaxaqueños: The most traditional tamales from Oaxaca are wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with chicken mole
- Tamales de rajas (poblano): Perhaps the most popular vegetarian tamal variety. Rajas are strips of roasted poblano peppers. You’ll most likely find them with strips of cheese, too.
- Tamales de piña (pineapple): One of the most popular sweet tamales. These tamales have pineapple and use butter for a different flavor profile.
- Sweet corn tamales: Made with fresh corn instead of masa harina, this variety is great for breakfast or dessert with café de olla.
- Corundas: A sort of pyramid-shaped tamal from Michoacán
Dietitian Gabby Puche explains, hallacas are “made with a cornmeal dough that is filled with a flavorful mixture of stewed meats, olives, capers, raisins, and other ingredients. The filling includes a combination of beef, pork, and chicken.”
While hallacas are traditionally served as a Christmas food, Puche also added you will see them throughout the month of December in Venezuelan households. Hallacas are wrapped in plantain leaves.
The cornmeal used for hallacas is not nixtamalized, as dietitian Lorena Drago, MS, RD points out. This will lead to some nutrition differences between hallacas and a Mexican tamal, but hallacas are still a very nutritious food.
“Cornmeal is a good source of complex carbohydrates,” according to Puche. Additionally, the fillings can provide a wide variety of nutrients.
Like hallacas, Colombian tamales are most often made with corn meal instead of nixtamalized corn, according to Drago.
There are a wide variety of Colombian tamales, each bringing their region’s unique flavor to the table. Drago noted a few varieties of tamales in Colombia use rice instead of corn.
Perhaps the most famous type of tamales in Colombia are the Tolimenses. Tamales tolimenses are made with rice, boiled egg, carrots, corn, peas, pork & chicken, according to Drago. They also have a distinct shape compared to other tamales.
Other Colombian tamales you can try include:
- Tamales antioqueños: Featuring corn masa, peas, carrots, and chicken
- Tamales santafereños: Notable for including chickpeas and sausage
Guatemalan tamales are wrapped in banana leaves. The dough is also boiled before steaming the entire tamal.
The most famous type of Guatemalan tamal–tamales colorados–features a red recado sauce made with achiote, and green olives. Get the recipe here.
Another variety of Guatemalan tamal–called paches–is actually made with potato. Paches also feature recado sauce, but it is mixed into the dough rather than stuffed into it. Try this recipe for paches.
Tamales pisques are a signature dish from El Salvador. What’s unique about tamales pisques is that they feature puréed beans. You can try them here.
Nacatamales are the Nicaraguan take on tamales. Nacatamales are quite large, and have a very generous filling with meat, potatoes, tomato, and more.
A signature of the nacatamal is the sour orange in the masa. They are also wrapped in banana leaves.
Cuban tamales have the meat chopped into tiny pieces and mixed into the dough, versus having a dough shell with a meat filling. The dough is also made from fresh corn, instead of dried, nixtamalized corn.
Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
Pasteles de hoja are a sort of plantain-based tamal popular in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Instead of a dough made from corn masa or corn meal, pasteles are made with a dough from plantain and other starchy vegetables like yuca or yautia.
Peruvian cuisine is world-famous. And in many ways, Peruvian food is quite different from the rest of Latin American food. But Peru still has their own take on tamales, called tamalitos.
Tamalitos tend to be smaller than Mexican tamales, and a little more dry. A popular variety is tamalitos verdes (green tamalitos) that add herbs and greens into the masa.
Panamanian tamales commonly feature raisins or capers in the meat filling. The dough is also typically more moist than other corn tamales.
The most famous type of tamales from Argentina are tamales salteños. They are notable for having a minced meat filling and boiled eggs.
Another variety from Argentina is tamales tucumanos, which you can try here.
Not everyone considers humitas to be a type of tamal, but rather a completely separate food. But humitas are steamed corn, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. If I’m including hallacas and pasteles in this list, it makes sense to include humitas too.
What makes humitas different is that the corn is more of a soft corn paste. Some people have referred to humitas as “corn pudding tamales,” which shows how much softer the texture is.
You can find humitas in many different parts of South America, including Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and more.
Sweet humitas with raisin fillings are common.
There are countless types of tamales in Latin America.
Many of my clients are curious about the health benefits of tamales, but it’s important to clarify what types of tamales they’re eating first. This is because the different types of fillings, dough, and even cooking methods can affect the nutritional value.
Regardless of the variety, all tamales can be part of a healthy diet and are a delicious part of our heritage.
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