If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating a tamal, then you know that it’s a savory snack made with masa (corn dough) and flavored with chili peppers, cilantro, onions, and other spices.
But why not take it up a notch by serving your guests tamales alongside something special?
To help you decide which dishes go best with tamales, we talked to several Mexican cooks and food writers about their favorite recipes.
Here’s what they said.
What is a traditional side dish to serve with tamales?
Tamales are typically served with a side dish called “mole verde,” or green sauce.
Mole verde can be spicy, sweet, sour, salty, or any combination thereof.
It can also be made using many different ingredients, including nuts, chocolate, mushrooms, tomatoes, avocados, and more.
The most common mole verde recipe calls for making a paste out of chiles, garlic, and herbs.
This is then mixed with chicken broth, vegetable stock, and the ground meat from the tamales.
The mixture is simmered until it thickens into a rich, creamy sauce.
Other versions use pumpkin seeds instead of the chiles, while others include raisins or dried fruit.
Some moles even have a touch of alcohol, like tequila.
Mole verde is traditionally eaten at parties and celebrations, but it can also be served as an appetizer or snack at home.
You can make mole verde ahead of time and keep it in the fridge for a couple of days.
Just reheat it before serving.
You can also add roasted vegetables to your mole verde, such as potatoes, carrots, squash, and zucchini.
These veggies will soften during cooking and give your sauce a nice texture.
Here are several popular recipes for mole verde:
Mole Verde de Chilacayota
Mole Verde de Nogales
Mole Verde de Poblano
Mole Verde de Yucatan
Mole Verde de Michoacan
Mole Verde de Jalisco
Mole Verde con Pollo y Papas
Chile Relleno de Mole Verde
If you want to serve tamales with another type of Mexican side dish, check out our guide to the best tacos in the world.
What are some common ingredients in tamales?
In addition to masa, the main ingredient in most tamales is either pork or chicken.
Other common ingredients include onion, garlic, cilantro, tomatoes, and lime juice.
Some cooks also add salt and sugar to the mix.
The recipe below uses tamale wrappers instead of masa, but you could easily substitute masa if you prefer.
The secret to making great tamales is to use fresh ingredients and seasonings.
If you want to make sure your tamales taste authentic, be sure to ask your local Mexican grocery store owner for advice.
1 pound ground beef, 1/4 cup minced green onion, 2 tablespoons chopped jalapeno pepper, 3 cloves garlic, 2 teaspoons oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, 3 cups diced tomato, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1/2 cup water, 1 package corn husks, 1 pound cooked rice, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup shredded cheese, 1 cup salsa (optional)
How are tamales typically prepared?
Tamales are usually served at parties or celebrations, but they can also be eaten any time during the day.
They are traditionally served with a side of refried beans, rice, guacamole, salsa verde, tortillas, and salsas.
It’s worth noting that most tamales are fried before being wrapped in corn husks.
This is because the masa is too delicate to withstand heat from frying.
The traditional way to make them involves placing the tamales in an oven or over an open flame while covered with banana leaves, but this method isn’t recommended for home use due to safety concerns.
The masa is made from ground dried corn kernels and water.
After mixing the ingredients together, the mixture is left to ferment for around 24 hours before being used to make the tamales.
Once the tamales have been made, they must be steamed, boiled, or baked in order for them to become edible again.
Ingredients for making tamales
1 cup masa harina (flour)
½ cup lard
¼ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup of water
1 cup of boiling water
Step 1: Mixing masa harina, lard, and salt
Add the dry ingredients to a bowl.
Then slowly add the ⅓ cup of water until you reach a smooth consistency.
Step 2: Adding boiling water
Once all of the dry ingredients have been mixed into a paste, slowly pour in the boiling water.
Mix well using a spoon until the masa has formed a ball.
Step 3: Cooking the tamales
Take one half of the tamale mix and place it in between two layers of plastic wrap.
Use a rolling pin to roll out the masa until it has a 10×12-inch shape.
Leave the tamale sheet to cool completely before wrapping it up in corn husks.
Step 4: Wrapping the tamales
Use scissors to cut off the top portion of each husk.
Place a tamale inside the husk, leaving enough space for air to circulate around it.
Repeat the process until all the tamales have been filled.
Next, cover the tamales with banana leaves and tie the ends tightly with string so they don’t fall apart.
After the tamales are cooked, they can be kept warm in a pan over low heat until ready to serve.
What is the history of tamales?
Tamales are believed to have originated in 1521, when Hernan Cortes was touring Mexico City and met a man named Juan de Oñate who served him his famous tamales.
The spicy cornmeal patties were traditionally wrapped in banana leaves or maize husks before being cooked over an open fire.
As time passed, the tradition evolved into different shapes and sizes.
Today, tamales come in all sorts of shapes, including round rolls, long tubes, and even mini-tamales (or “chilaquiles”).
The name “tamale” comes from the Nahuatl word “tamalli,” meaning “to wrap.”
Today, tamales are usually made from masa harina (dough), but there’s also a whole range of other ingredients used to flavor them.
Some are filled with meat, vegetables, cheese, or even chocolate!
A lot of people think that tamales are just for special occasions, like Christmas, weddings, birthdays, and holidays.
But if you’re looking for a new way to celebrate, consider serving your guests tamales at any time of year.
Where do tamales originate from?
Tamales originated in Central America, but today they can be found all over Latin America, the Caribbean, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and even Australia.
They were introduced to North America by Spanish explorers who brought them back to Spain during their travels.
From there, the dish traveled throughout the Americas and eventually to Canada and the United States.
As word got out about how delicious tamales were, people started making them at home.
The first recorded recipe was written down in 1769 in the book “El Cocinero Mexicano” by a French chef named Jean-Baptiste Noguier.
He called his version of tamales “tamalli,” and he included instructions on how to make them using fresh vegetables instead of dried.
Since then, the dish has been adapted and changed based on regional tastes.
In the U.S., tamales are often served with meat or beans and rice.
If you want to add a little extra flavor, try grilling the meat before adding it to the filling.
In Mexico, tamales are usually stuffed with chicken, pork, beef, or seafood.
One popular variation is called pollo con mole — chicken cooked with a flavorful sauce.
Here are some of our favorite tamale recipes:
This traditional breakfast dish is like scrambled eggs, but without all the fuss.
The key to this dish is the tortilla chips, which provide texture and crunch to the meal.
You can use store-bought chips if you don’t have time to make your own.
2 cups water
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
12 ounces shredded cheese
Heat water in pot until boiling.
Add cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and pepper.
Cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat.
Pour mixture into blender and blend until smooth.
Heat oil in pan over medium heat.
Add onion and garlic, and cook until tender.
Add blended cornmeal mixture and stir to combine.
Reduce heat to low, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Spread half of the chilaquiles evenly in an 8 x 12-inch glass baking dish.
Top each serving with 1 ounce of shredded cheese.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
Masa mix (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rinse chicken thighs and pat dry with paper towels.
Season both sides of chicken with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
Sear chicken on both sides until golden brown.
Transfer to a plate.
To same pan, add onion and bell pepper, and sauté until softened, 5 minutes.
Add garlic and spices, and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.
Return chicken to pan, along with stock, wine, vinegar, and lime juice, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Using slotted spoon, transfer chicken to rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.
Place saucepan over medium heat, and reduce until thickened, about 5 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste and season with salt and pepper.
Slice chicken and serve with sauce and tamale mix.
You can buy premade masa mix packets at most grocery stores, but homemade masa mix is easy to make yourself.
The key is to keep the corn flour moist so that it doesn’t get too sticky when mixed with water.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup masa harina
1/4 cup instant polenta
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon vegetable shortening
1/2 cup warm water
Combine ingredients in a medium bowl and knead with hands until homogeneous.
Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Makes approximately 4 cups.
How many different types of tamales are there?
Tamales come in all shapes and sizes, from small handheld versions called bolillos to large platters that can hold more than 20 pieces.
The most common variety of tamale is known as “tamal de puerco” or pork tamale, but you may also find them stuffed with chicken, beef, or vegetables like squash and chayote.
A few people even make veggie tamales.
You can buy fresh tamales at grocery stores and Mexican markets, but if you want to save money, you can also make them yourself, using cornmeal instead of masa harina.
You can use either yellow or red masa flour, depending on your preference.
If you don’t feel like making tamales from scratch, you can always buy canned tamales from the supermarket.
These are typically filled with ground meat, but you can get other varieties too, including vegetarian options like refried beans or mashed potatoes.
One of the biggest perks of homemade tamales is that you control the ingredients and flavors.
If you prefer traditional tamales, you might want to start by making your own masa.
There are a number of ways to do this, including grinding dried corn kernels into fine powder, soaking the corn in water overnight, or cooking it in a pressure cooker.
Once you’ve got the masa prepared, you’ll need to add the seasonings.
Some popular flavor combinations include ancho chili powder and cumin, paprika and garlic powder, and oregano and onion powder.
Next, roll the masa into balls and flatten them out using a tortilla press.
Then, wrap the masa around a filling, such as shredded chicken, and seal the edges together.
Finally, steam the tamales in a steamer basket for 40 minutes or until cooked through.
The end result will be tender, flavorful tamales that are perfect for dipping in warm chili sauce.
What is the most popular type of tamale?
The most popular type of tamale in Mexico is called “frijol con carnitas” or “bean with pork.”
This dish has been around since the Spanish colonization of Mexico and is often served at parties.
The recipe involves filling corn tortillas with a mixture of refried beans and shredded pork, and then pan frying them until crispy.
A little bit of cheese is added to each one before they’re finished cooking.
This dish is delicious, but it can be tricky to make at home because the beans must be cooked very slowly so they don’t break apart while frying.
Another popular choice among tamale aficionados is “molcajete de pollo.”
This dish is made from ground chicken mixed with fresh herbs, lime juice, garlic, and salt.
Once everything is combined, it’s placed into a clay pot and baked until crispy.
While this dish may sound complicated, it’s easy enough to make yourself at home if you have access to an authentic molcajete.
However, you might want to consider making your own tortillas instead.
They’ll taste just as good and are much easier to make than traditional corn tortillas.
Are tamales always made with corn husks?
Tamales are traditionally wrapped in a corn husk, but many chefs also use banana leaves or even plastic wrap if available.
The choice depends on the recipe, so you may want to ask your local market or restaurant staff for advice.
While most tamales are made with masa and corn, some are made with beans, rice, chorizo, pork, chicken, or vegetable fillings.
You can find tamales filled with cheese, seafood, or vegetables, too.
In fact, there are more than 500 different kinds of tamales in Mexico!
A good rule of thumb is to avoid using plastic wrapping or banana leaves when making tamales because these materials can make them soggy.
And never wash the filling before wrapping the tamale in its husk—it will lose flavor and moisture.
Can tamales be made ahead of time?
Tamales are a labor of love, so there’s no need to rush them!
While some people like to wrap the tamales in plastic wrap before placing them in the fridge, this isn’t necessary.
In fact, wrapping them is more likely to cause them to dry out than prevent it from happening.
The best way to keep them fresh is to store them at room temperature.
So if you have a lot of leftovers, it’s probably best to just freeze them instead.
You can also put them in an airtight container or foil pouch and pop them into the freezer.
While freezing may be the best option for preserving them, in case you do want to use them sooner, you can reheat them in the microwave or oven.
If you’re planning to heat them in the microwave, place them in a bowl and cover them with a damp kitchen towel.
This will protect them from drying out, but also act as a moisture barrier.
Once heated, remove the towel and let them cool completely before serving.
How do you store tamales?
Tamales are generally stored in a cool place out of direct sunlight.
The ideal temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, according to chef and writer María José Aguirre.
If you live in an area where temperatures fluctuate wildly, like New
York City or San Francisco, keep them wrapped in damp newspaper.
And if you have a humid climate, consider placing them in a paper
bag and placing them in the refrigerator overnight, she says.
In addition to storing them properly, make sure you don’t overfill
“The more filling there is inside the better, but be careful not to
overstuff them because they’ll burst open when you cook them,” says
When you’re ready to eat, reheat the tamales in a pan or microwave
If you want to freeze them, wrap each one individually in plastic wrap
or foil and place them in a freezer bag.
To thaw them, leave them at room temperature until they’re warm and soft.
How to Make Pork Tamales the First Time
- ½ pounds lean boneless pork shoulder
- 2 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil
- 1 bay leaf
- Red chile sauce.
- 3 tablespoons dried ancho chile
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dry oregano
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 6 cups masa harina
- 2 cups neutral-tasting oil
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 3 tablespoons chili powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- ½ cups chicken broth
- Corn husks – Soak in hot water and ensure that they are tender.
- Masa–Make the dough to a nice smooth texture.
- Traditionally, Mexican tamale experts taught their family members how to make pork tamales dough using lard.
- Sauce – Blend all the ingredients to a smooth paste.
- Pork – Add the rich red chile sauce to the pork and simmer for about 15 minutes.
- Folding the corn husk is a stage when learning how to make pork tamales.
- As a matter of fact, putting the components that make the tamales together is an art.
- You may need some practice before you can achieve that perfect spread.
- With the ingredients above, you can make about 45-50 tamales rojos.
- Dry the corn husk–Pour out the water from the corn husks and use a paper towel to pat them dry.
- Spread the dough on the husks– First, hold the husk in the palm of your hand or place it on a flat surface.
- Next, use a spatula or the back of your spoon to spread the masa onto the bottom half of the smooth side.
- Further, smear a thin layer on the top half.
- Repeat this process on all the husks.
- The more you practice, the better you become at “how to make pork tamales.”
- Add the pork filling – Place a spoonful of seasoned pork and spread it evenly in the center of the masa.
- Ensure that you do not overstuff it because the filling can spill out when you fold the husk.
- Fold the wrapper–Overlap the long end of the corn husk and leave one side open.
- You can secure the fold with a thin strap of corn husk for a better display.
- However, you can also place the tamales in the steamer without tying and with the open side upwards.
- Fill the pot with water and cover with the steamer insert.
- Stack the tamales in the steamer with the open end facing up.
- They should lean against the side of the steamer pot and remain in the upright position during the steaming process.
- Keep the lid tightly covered and place the steamer over a medium heat burner or stove..
- Simmer the assembled pieces of tamales for about three hours.
- You can remove one wrapped pack of tamal and open it up to check if the dish is ready.