A convergence of cultures

by Herlinda

photo of tamales

Variety of tamales wrapped with corn leaves and banana leaves. <https://arteyculturaenrebeldia.com/2017/02/22/los-tamales-entrana-de-mesoamerica-y-el-caribe-ariel-aviles-marin/>

There are different cultures that coexist in Mexico: Amerindian, European, and African communities have influenced each other through time since they met in what today we call Mexico.  We can find a point in case of this melting pot in its traditional food, when the ingredients from those regions blend and produce amazing flavors.  Consider this fusion of ingredients an analogy to converging cultures living together in the same territory.

In Mexico, breakfast is not only a quotidian meal, but also a meal to gather people in celebration, for a wedding, a birthday party, or the welcoming of a newborn. Tamales is one of the most representative dishes served in breakfast celebrations. In tamales, we find the ingredients representing Amerindian, African, and European cultures.  Corn is original from the Americas, banana leaves come from Africa, and Europeans brought in chicken and pork.

According to Angélica Correa de la Garza’s article Corn and human body on Ngigua perspective in San Marcos Tlacoyalco, Puebla[i], this community regards tamales as a gratitude ritual food.  Cooking tamales requires great skill and the cook shall be always a woman. This woman must not be pregnant or in a bad mood, because that would affect negatively their texture and flavor.

Cooking tamales involves all family women, not at the same time, but in its different stages of preparation.  Each woman from the family will be responsible for only one of the steps required to prepare tamales.

The basic ingredient of tamales is white corn flour.  The Ngigua considers corn the most important ingredient of their diet.  That is why the preparation of tamales requires the strictest control. Women select the most beautiful and perfect ears of corn for making the flour. They also select carefully the corn leaves or banana leaves that will wrap the tamales dough.

Even though tamales are mainly from Amerindian origin, with time, women integrated some ingredients from other cultures.  The cook mixes the corn flour with hot water and a bit of lard, which is a European ingredient.  The mix results in dense dough that is very hard to manage due to its high viscosity.  Once the dough is ready, the cook either wraps a small fraction of it with dried corn leaves or smoked banana leaves that are an original ingredient from Africa.  Before the cook ties down the wrap, she fills the piece of corn dough with something sweet or savory.  Only then, the cook puts the tamales into a steamer until they are ready.

Savory tamales wrapped in smoked banana leaf. <http://coyoacanenses.com/feria-del-tamal/>

There are hundreds of varieties of tamales along Mexican territory, but we can simplify it by saying that there are two big kinds of tamales: sweet and savory. Sweet tamales are commonly pink.  That is because the cook dyes the dough with vegetable color and sprinkles it with raisins.  This is another example of the fusion of cultures. Sweet tamales are the less common in Amerindian communities, because its members link corn with savory foods.

When the cook fills up tamales with chicken or pork, it is the result of European influence, as those ingredients were not present in the Americas before 1492.  Chile peppers with a filling or no filling at all denotes Amerindian influence.

The blend of Amerindian, European and African flavors gives tamales their culinary exquisiteness.  The majority of the diverse groups that coexist in Mexico enjoy eating tamales, probably because in them they find the convergence of their cultures.

Sweet tamales. <http://www.chefanapaula.com.mx/recetas/eventos_especiales/i/2329/TAMALES_DULCES.html>

[i]           Gámez E., A. & Ramírez R., R. coords. (2017). El maíz, la tierra y el agua en la cosmovisión popoloca. Etnografía, reflexiones y propuestas teórico metodológicas. Puebla: Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.