A comforting and filling gastronomic gift tightly packed in an aromatic leaf or corn husk exterior – Tamale (tamal is the Standard Spanish singular form), takes avid eaters throughout history in a mouth-watering bite. This menu has stood the test of time with its origin speculated to date even prior to the Pre-Columbian times, as far back as 7000 BC.
Whether you are hosting a Christmas party or you simply want to welcome some Mexican Fiesta for your family lunch or dinner – you won’t go wrong when choosing to serve tamales. But what to serve with tamales? We here prepared a list of foods that will enhance you Mexican food experience.
WHAT IS A TAMALE?
Tamale is a Mesoamerican dish where at its most basic is a corn (masa) dough packed with a flavourful filling, normally in a form of protein, then wrapped in either a banana leaf or corn husk exterior. The body of a tamale consists of these aforementioned 3 important parts; the masa, filling and wrapper.
Firstly, the masa. It is not an exaggeration to say that the key to a good tamale is the masa. The traditional way of producing a masa is through the process of nixtamalization which is a corn preparation where corn grains are cooked in an alkaline solution, which are then washed and grinded. This process results in changes in the protein structure of the processed corn making the resulting amino acids more bioavailable for human consumption and a gelatinization in the starch component which owes to its latter doughy structure.
The grinded end product of the process is called a Nixtamal which is used to make masa dough. Nowadays, a household does not have to go through this arduous process by hand to produce this delicious masa dough and can instead find them both in prepared or unprepared form at a nearby tortillerias.
While cooking a tamale, a cook’s handy tip is to not be shy with the amount of fat content in the masa. A traditional, foolproof fat used in regions of South America is lard. Other forms of fat such as vegetable shortening and butter may also be opted for as substitute.
2. The Filling
Next, the filling. All the options and varieties you could think of. A masa tamale is such a versatile dish and the filling in itself is open for a cook’s palate and creative interpretation and flexibility. Meat, either pork, beef or chicken bathed and marinated in various sauces to your liking, most typically a mole or a salsa is common. Add some colours and nutritions to the mix with vegetables, cheese and beans.
For a sweet tooth, tamale can also be filled with dessert-worthy ingredients such as fruits and sugary syrup. But do not forget that there are also tamales variations which come with no fillings called tamale nejos, just good ol’ steamed corn masa flavoured with fat such as lard that can be enjoyed with some beans and hot beverages. Really, so many possibilities and options are available for tamales filling and that makes tamales a family favourite that suits to be a main dish or dessert by itself on a dining table.
3. The Wrapping
Last but not least, the exterior wrapping. Differing from regions and availability, the wrapping may come in the form of a corn husk or banana leaves. Some regions in Southern America have been recorded to use agave leaves instead resulting in a distinctive fragrance and minty flavour to the tamales. In Oaxaca, plantain or banana leaves is the wrapping of choice rendering the masa with an earthy flavour and aroma. Regardless of the choice of leaves of husks, the wrapping should be noted to serve more than just a decorative and packaging purpose, rather imparts the masa with a unique flavour and fragrance.
HOW DO TAMALES TASTE LIKE?
If there are words that can be used to describe the taste of tamales, they would be “Heavenly”, “Sunshine” and “Happiness”. No lesser word for such a dish that was offered and served to the Gods in the ancient times.
With the masa mixed with fat steamed in a corn husk or banana leaves, the corn dough’s texture sets and firms up creating a crumbly yet moist corn taste which is very distinct to a tamale. Infused with aromatics of the leaves or husk of choice, a tamale may have a variant of fragrance note which satiates the eater not just at the level of taste but also the olfactory senses.
Secondly, the filling pulls a lot of weight to how a tamale tastes. The various filling options for a tamale; both sweet and savoury, bring richness to the steamed masa flavour coating each bite with a hint of varying texture and taste.
The usual savoury filling features a slow cooked meat in chilli or mole sauce ensuing a heightened flavour combination with flaky, tender texture of proteins. As a treat, sweet based tamales taste just like dessert! So good and so versatile.
HOW TO SERVE TAMALES?
Prior to serving a tamale, of course, one has to cook a tamale. Put simply, the process of making the tamale itself is quite straightforward.
First, open the husk or banana leaf and spread the masa dough around the inside of the wrapper followed by a couple of spoonfuls of fillings. Wrap the filling and steam your tamale for 1 to 2 hours, according to your family recipe. After checking for doneness, it is imperative to cool down the cooked tamales prior to serving. A 5 minutes resting time is often adequate to avoid extensive drying of the tamales.
Next, comes the fun part. Plating the tamale. A host can either choose to serve the tamales in its original wrapper for a more exotic look on the tamales or unwrap them and place on a serving plate just prior to eating to prevent the tamale from drying out. Regardless of which method is preferred, tamales are best enjoyed just freshly and adequately rested after coming out of the steamer.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH TAMALES?
The long-loved tamale is simply so adaptable and flexible that a host of a Tamale Party can simply do no wrong. Eat it by hand, eat it by itself, side or no side, it’s just perfect and delicious on its own. But ways to make it better and feel more like a complete meal are not short either. If you are planning to create a Tamale Party at Nana’s house this Christmas, try some of our favourite pairings to make your tamale dinner party even better and superb.
Who would have thought that eggs would make a merry accompaniment to tamales? It makes a lot of sense now that we think about how eggs are also as versatile as tamales are. Just scramble the eggs with the usual fillings that you enjoy, such as onions or corn and carrots for a bright addition of colours and top them over the tamales.
For a more fun way of serving the tamales with eggs, you may arrange them as a single layer in a baking dish, top them with scrambled eggs and shredded cheese, then broil in the oven for a few seconds until the cheese is all melted.
For easy cooking, just serve some eggs over easy with runny yolks laid gently on the tamales. This also makes it a good way to eat leftover tamales for breakfast the next day, if you have leftovers!
2. Jicama slaw
Jicama, widely known as Mexican turnip is a perfect side dish at a tamale dinner. Since a tamale is normally crumbly and hearty in texture and taste accordingly, a contrasting crunchy jicama slaw texture offers a refreshing twist to the meal.
Add more colours and nutritions to the jicama slaw by varying the types of vegetables in it; carrots, bell peppers, red onions or cabbage. Season and garnish with spices and aromatics to bring the flavours together either with cilantro for a more exotic, earthy taste and even drizzle with mango sauces for a more tropical touch.
Complete the slaw with a pairing acid such as lemon, lime juice or a matching vinegar.
3. Refried beans
Refried beans as a classic side dish in most Mexican meals will also serve as a scrumptious complimentary dish to tamales. Use beans of your choice, we recommend using pinto beans for this dish for its creamy and rich texture giving every bite a filling mouthful. For outrageously mouth-watering refried beans, use finely diced onions and mash your beans to the degree of your preference.
Add a splash of lime juice and sprinkles of spices including chili powder, cumin and coriander leaves to seal the deal. The creamy and buttery texture of refried beans serve as a succulent side dish to tamales without putting them out of the spotlight.
Salsa is easy to make, refreshing and so delicious as a pairing to tamales. This is especially true if the tamales fillings are a little on the heavy side, for instance those laden with cheese and red meats. In this case, not only can you play with different flavour profiles of the salsa, but you can also play with the colours on your serving plate. Offer red or green chiles based variants of salsa at your party for striking colours that can spruce up any dinner party.
Guacamole is another side dish perfect to be eaten with tamales. With a very versatile base of mashed avocado that renders to its creamy and nutty taste, you can toss pretty much any ingredients to your guacamole that turns your tamale into a full course meal.
The simplest of guacamole would need only avocado and salt but a few teaspoons of acidity would bring light to the guacamole and acts as a refreshing counterpart to a hearty tamale. For more additions of flavours and colours, mix in chopped cilantro, tomatoes, chives or onions to the guacamole for a more satisfying bite.
6. Beans and rice
Literally, the combination of 2 basic staple foods; beans and rice make for a matching side dish for tamales. Not only are the star ingredients of this dish already sitting in your pantry, they also come together in one pot.
Oh, so easy and delicious!
To accompany tamales, you may make a variant of spanish or cilantro rice and mix in your beans of choice for a good bite with every spoonful. Add in some spices of your liking such as paprika, chilli powder, oregano and cayenne for more spicy options with aromatics such as onions and garlic, for basic recipes. Toast your rice in this bloomed aromatics mixture and later simmer the beans and rice together until done. Enjoy!
7. Pico de gallo
While pico de gallo is also a form of a salsa, we think that this dish deserves a class of its own due to its freshness and texture which is different from other Mexican salsas which normally contains more liquid. Pico de gallo also called salsa fresca or salsa cruda is typically composed of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, cilantro, lime and seasoned with salt. Add some freshness and texture burst with pico de gallo at your tamale party.
8. Fajita vegetables
Fajita vegetables is a simple and versatile side dish making it complementary to tamales too. With just a few simple ingredients, explosions of flavours can be achieved with just the right seasonings. The key to a perfect fajita vegetables is ensuring the vegetables stay crisp while maintaining a bright colour to the strips of vegetables.
The simplest forms of vegetables you can incorporate in a fajita vegetables dish may include just thinly sliced onions and various coloured bell peppers. Flash saute these in a hot pan adding in your favourite seasonings and serve them hot with the tamales.
9. Black bean soup
Bean is an inseparable component to Mexican food. Beans that come in soup is a suitable side dish to hearty and filling tamales because it is the ultimate comfort dish. The process of making black bean soup is pretty simple, which includes simmering black beans in a mixture of broth brought together by sauteing aromatics such as celery, onion, garlic, red pepper and jalapenos before bringing in the liquids and spices such as cumin, coriander and bay leaf.
If using canned beans, add in the already mashed beans to a boil in the liquid or use a hand blender to mash boiled beans in the pot if using beans from scratch. Serve in a bowl alongside your freshly steamed tamales. Crowd-pleasers, that’s a given.
Calabacitas is another side dish that is not a stranger to the dining tables of a Mexican household. This is a vegetables loaded dish that would make a great pairing to most meat based tamales, or any tamale you have at hand. It’s really that good and flavourful.
Calabacitas normally consists of summer squash or zucchini sauteed with corn, roasted peppers, onions bathed in a mixture of seasonings such as cumin, ancho powder and Mexican oregano. These vegetables are sauteed until softened and a sprinkle of cheese is added as an option.
11. Corn casserole
What is a perfect pairing for a corn based masa than corn itself? Any form of corn casserole seasoned with Mexican flavours, for instance cumin, coriander and chili powder and even just cornbread may suit this purpose. Double the corn flavour, double the happy plates around the dinner table.
12. Mole sauce
A good authentic mole is already excellent and any good mole recipe can grace your tamale any time of the day. Drizzle some of the mole sauce like you would drizzle some honey on your biscuits and rolls and the outcome is just mouth watering. Mole has a nutty, rich with a slightly sweet chocolate note that is just irresistible and makes a yummy tamale even yummier.
13. Mexican crema
Mexican crema is a condiment which is comparable to sour cream but if you are up for the real deal, try a Mexican crema instead. Not only is it perfect for toning down the spiciness that may come with tamales, Mexican crema also adds depth and a sweet finishing touch to any Mexican dish. Mexican crema can be easily made at home with heavy cream, buttermilk, lime juice and salt and when ready, just drizzle on tamales.
14. Fresh fruits
Because tamales are already fulfilling enough, especially if you have made a variant of tamales with different fillings; both meat and vegetables, all you need left to spruce up your tamale party is just a bowl of fresh fruits. Tamales making, especially in big quantities and variants may be a painstaking labour of love, so finish up your hard work with something simple, refreshing and sweet with fresh fruits.
Yes, you are not mistaken. Serve your tamales with more tamales! Accompany your savoury tamales with sweet tamale desserts or add more options to your tamale fillings. No kidding, tamales are just good eaten by itself. Tamales are awesome and truly one food for the Gods.
In short, we ventured through the historical and cultural significance of a humble food that can now be ubiquitously found in tamale carts at any streets of big cities. Tamale is a food of important tradition and carries remembrance of good memories, a happy heart and a full stomach in many households. It is truly a food worth celebrating and enjoying at any holiday occasion and we hope you can elevate your dining experience with our suggested side dishes. Remember with every bite, however, that tamales should be exalted as a celebration of tradition, togetherness and a culturally significant gift that transcends through time.