Every household has their own traditions when it comes to holiday dinners. Maybe you fry a turkey or roast a whole ham. But for many Latinx families, the centerpiece of their festive celebrations comes in a small package.

Tamales have existed in Mesoamerica since long before the region was colonized by Europeans. They come in a wide variety of styles and preparations, but at the most basic level it's dough with some sort of filling that is covered in a protective wrapper and steamed.

Vague, right? Because of how much they have evolved throughout the Latin American Diaspora, there's no specific definition that applies to all types of tamales. You can find tamales, or similar foods with different names and shapes, throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, and beyond.

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tamales
Andrew Bui

One characteristic that applies to any tamal is that it's a labor of love. From creating the filling, making the masa, assembling each tamal, to eventually cooking them, the process can sometimes span several days.

In many households, cooking tamales is often reserved for special occasions like the holiday season. For as long as I can remember, tamales have always meant Christmas. A long-running childhood holiday ritual involved reading the children's book Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. The book follows a family making a big batch of tamales together to eat for Christmas dinner. In my own hometown in New Mexico, we enlist the whole family to participate in the same tradition.

The event, called a tamalada, translates to "tamal-making party." For many, it's one of the first family gatherings to kick off Christmas. My cousins and I are often tasked with smearing layers of masa across soaked corn husks and filling them with piles of red chile-braised pork and cheesy calabacitas (a dish made with sauteed squash), while the older family members supervise.

Different Types Of Tamales

My family's New Mexico-style tamales incorporate the region's signature flavor palette: squash, corn, and plenty of local Hatch chile. The preparation follows much of the same conventions as versions found in neighboring Mexico. We use corn husks as the protective wrapper and nixtamalized corn as the base of our masa.

Delish's Senior Designer Sarah Ceniceros, who hails from Chihuahua, in Northern Mexico, celebrates Christmas with tamales in a similar way. Also wrapped in corn husks, the tamales on her dinner table are filled with picadillo (a dish made with ground meat), beans, chicken, or rajas con queso (poblano peppers and cheese). Sometimes, you can find tamales Oaxaqueños that swap corn husks for banana leaves.

In other regions of Mexico, they can be made completely differently. In Michoacán, corundas are a popular variety of tamales that are shaped into triangles and wrapped with fresh corn leaves. Further south, in Chiapas, tamales are frequently formed into balls and sometimes wrapped in hoja santa leaves.

Tamales are more than a snapshot into a culture's cuisine; they're a representation of family traditions and holiday cheer. Want to make a batch of tamales for Christmas this year? Check out our recipe.

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