Many of us can smell, even taste the memories of family holiday gatherings, even if we’re all not able to be together, or loved ones have passed on. I can even hear mine. They sound like my grandmother, Guadalupe Esparza, a one-woman catering machine from Aguascalientes, Mexico. She’s in the kitchen making masa from scratch and assembling her famous-to-us holiday tamales. No one else is allowed in. She’d sometimes let my dad help, but no one else. I cajoled her into letting me try one time, and after I got stuck while trying to assemble my first tamal de puerco (pork tamale), she took one look at the mess I made, then snatched the bowl of masa from me. “I make them; you eat them,” Grandma Lupe lectured me. Her insistence on doing it all herself is as much a part of our family traditions as her rajas con queso, and sweet raisin and sugar, tamales that I love so much.
Tamales are significant to families like mine, which swells with dozens of aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. My grandmother was even sometimes forced to relent control, allowing anointed members (typically women; very rarely men) of the family to join her in a tamal-making party called the tamalada. They would make dozens and dozens of tamales to feast on for the holidays, and to give to family as gifts that come artfully stuffed, folded, and tied with corn husks, banana leaves, or hojas de milpa (dark green leaves of corn stalks). Hence, it was the perfect design and packing for portability. For thousands of years, Indigenous warriors, traders, and other travelers packed nutritious tamales for their journey, perfectly preserved in their natural wrappers until eaten at room temperature, or reheated.
Tamales are not only important to my family, but they’re actually a living cultural artifact deserving of the decree of UNESCO World Heritage “Intangible Cultural Heritage Item.” Tamales are a ritual food and holiday staple on the tables and altars from the epoch of our indigenous ancestors to today’s cultural groups in Mexico, Central America, South America, parts of the Caribbean, and the United States. We see them at our most important events, from family reunions and weddings to baptism parties and funerals—tamales are there with us when we are born, get married, celebrate with those we love most, and pass away.
Why do we eat tamales at the holidays?
But why do we eat tamales at the winter holidays and other major celebrations? Surely, the roots of tamales as an important holiday dish, date back to its honored presence at early Mesoamerican festivals, rituals, and weddings, along with the time when it held the status as a dish for nobles.
Tamales are a year-round ceremonial dish during many Indigenous holidays. In the United States, the high tamal season spans from Día de Los Muertos to Thanksgiving, to Día de La Candelaria in February. The reason we gather to hold tamaladas on Día de La Candelaria owes to a holiday almost a month earlier called Día de Reyes Magos. On that day, we gather around to eat rosca de reyes, or Three Kings Bread, together. The lucky one who gets the slice of bread with a toy baby hidden inside is obligated to make tamales for Día de La Candelaria in February.
I think it’s more than the noble history of tamales that makes them the perfect holiday dish—it’s also the culinary effort required that elevates their status. Unlike the other range of “Vitamina T” foods (an irreverent Mexican term we use to signify the filling Mexican street foods that start with the letter “t,” including tortas, tacos and tostadas), these husk-wrapped treats can’t be whipped up at a moment’s notice. Instead, they require hours and hours of patient preparation and labor from tamal pros—often, by experienced family members who gather around a table to spend time together during the time-intensive process of the tamalada.
A week before Christmas, my grandma’s holiday tamales workshop would set up shop, with hundreds of tamales being made for our huge extended family dinners, as well as for family and friends to take home. Grandma knew she needed to make enough tamales to last until it was time to make her Christmas orders. For those, my dad was always negotiating dozens for friends at work—many of whom assumed they’d get their allotment each year, but everyone knows no one tells an abuela what to do with her tamales.
We would eat tamales for days—sweetened in a Thanksgiving casserole, heaped with guacamole and beans for holiday lunches, stuffed into homemade tortillas with stuffing, beans, and mashed potatoes, paired with Santa Clara rompope (Mexican eggnog) spiked with a little vanilla and some caramel-kissed Presidente brandy. Leftovers were always my favorite. I relished the chance to relive them for breakfast: tamales with sunny-side-up fried eggs on top, beans and rice—no turkey sandwiches for us.
Decolonizing the vegetarian origins of tamales
While often filled with meats like pork and chicken, these indigenous staples have a vegetarian origin story. Around 9,000 years ago, Indigenous people in the Valley of Mexico cultivated corn, genetically modified from the teocintle grass into maize. By the medieval period, they had created the world’s first modernist technique: nixtamalization. In this revolutionary method, dried corn kernels are cooked in an alkaline solution, transformed in smell, chemical composition, and functionality into a useful product: corn dough (or masa).
Today, corn tortillas are the preferred utensil for scooping up food in Mexico, parts of Central America, and abroad, but it wasn’t always so. In the classical period, Mayans used the tamal as a utensil, filling it with vegetables, meats, seafood, and quelites in various salsas of dried and fresh chiles to eat as a dish that was state-of-the-art in its portability. Indigenous communities and regional Mexican cuisines still use flat, firm, rectangular tamales as instruments to consume moles, soups, and stews.
Unlike the mostly meat-filled tamales at Mexican American tamale shops, Mesoamérica has a rich history of vegan and vegetarian-filled tamales—the result of an absence of domesticated animals, and the modern vegetarian diet of beans, corn, squash, chiles, and quelites (wild greens). While there were tamales filled with wild game, insects, and seafood, tamales filled with vegetables in salsa were boundless. These historically vegetarian tamales were filled with legumes, herbs, fruit, honey, flower petals, or simply pure masa, and then steamed or boiled.
Today, traditional vegetarian tamales continue to flourish. Tamales bursting with herbs, filled with flor de izote (yucca flower), shaped like stars, or sweetened with pineapple, strawberry, raisins and sugar, and coconut—all are an essential part of the holiday season for Latin American families.
The tamale lives on
Mexican-Americans, US-based Indigenous people, and other Latinos seem to be creating new vegetarian tamal versions for their holiday tables every year. Not only are they looking to the past and our rich cultural traditions, but they’re also innovating with new ingredients and techniques. And more than ever, social media, and more inclusive coverage of our communities have helped bring awareness of our vegetarian heritage, and where to find delicious vegetable-based tamales.
At Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, you can find tamales de chepil, a corn husk-wrapped Oaxacan tamal flecked with shards of the bitter herb. The dish is complete with a red salsa made from dried chiles. Typically a tamal for posadas (religious ceremonies), and as a ceremonial food for calendas (Oaxaca religious processions), these moist tamales de chepil are made by traditional zapoteca cook, Dominga Velasco Rodríguez, who was the chef de cuisine at renowned restaurant Guelaguetza for 15 years. When Velasco Rodriguez savors these tamales, they summon strong holiday memories of the many Oaxacan posadas, when hosts welcome weary travelers to eat tamales de chepil.
Another vegetarian tamal as delicious as it is simple reigns at Birriería Apatzingan in Pacoima, California. A longtime favorite for foods from Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente, weekend mornings at this shop bustle with Mexican families who have come for hot bowls of menudo, but it’s the uchepos, or sweet corn tamales, that draw crowds. Assembled unfilled, the uchepo is devoured with salsa and cream.
Vegan tamales can be found in the most unexpected places, like a tranquil MacArthur Park cafe full of multi-colored, wooden Mexican tables and chairs, flanked by textured orange walls covered in local art by migrant artists. Mama’s Hot Tamales serves the community of Mexican and Central American immigrants and vendors who gather in MacArthur Park. Since opening in 2001, there have always been a variety of vegan tamales, including jackfruit, sweet corn, or a dark, fruity mole with cactus and tomatoes. Mama’s has been an incubator for street vendors to run their own licensed businesses, and offering vegan tamales to reach that growing audience is a big part of their story.
In recent years, vegan Mexican cuisine has grown exponentially at popups like Todo Verde, the plant-based, healthy-eating popup. Just in time for the holidays, owner Jocelyn Ramirez cooks 100% vegan tamales available by the dozen, for orders to go. Here you can get nutty tamal of pipian verde with jackfruit, a pumpkin seed-based mole, or a blue corn tamal filled with a spicy mole almendrado (almond mole) with mushrooms.
Though some might view these tamales as part of a trendy vegan movement in Latin American communities, in reality, when we examine our histories, these plant-based tamales are really bringing us back to our roots. This year, we’re bringing our families together for some much-needed vegetarian holiday cooking, while also reliving a long historical tradition in our cultures for the fragrant flavors of both sweet and vegetal tamales.
It has been many years since my grandmother passed away, but the flavor of her tender masa, the spicy guisados, and the scent of a steaming tamalera (tamal steamer), still defines the holidays for me. Only the best tamales in town can come close to filling that void, and nowadays, I draw from the variety of regional Mexican, and Central-American tamales available in Los Angeles to place on my holiday table and share with family. At my grandmother’s house a kiss on the cheek, and a snack of tamales dulces with a glass of rompope greeted me when I walked in the door, like opening a steamy bag of sweet tamales before at the tamal shop for a nostalgic sniff of the holidays, where my grandmother lives on.
Though my grandmother passed away many years ago, when the holidays roll around, I still feel a strong urge to gather with my family for the warm, familiar scent of the masa and the sweet raisin and sugar filling. Her recipe was not passed down since she wouldn’t teach it to me, and my sister was not interested, but when I taste exceptional sweet tamales, I hear her voice telling me to eat more, to nourish myself. I feel her spirit living through them, and the spirits of the ancestors before her who kept tamales alive through the generations.