How to make authentic Mayan tamales in the Yucatan

I discovered that in the Yucatan (which is where Merida is located), the tamales are very different from the usual Mexican style ones. Making these authentic Mayan tamales is a time-consuming, labour-intensive job.

I am beginning to understand why it is so hard to find tamales as street food here. Because we wanted to try some authentic Mayan food I decided to take a Mexican cooking class that would teach me all about preparing these delicious homemade tamales.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 1 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Authentic Tamales come from Maya cuisine and were made long before the Spanish invasion of the Yucatan. In the Yucatan, these tamales are not the same as the usual Mexican tamale. They are made from masa and filled with chicken, turkey, pork or vegetables and cheese. However, unlike other tamales in Mexico here in the Yucatan, they wrap them in banana leaves instead of corn husks.

The Mayan people have been preparing and eating tamales for centuries and they are even depicted in the ancient Mayan artwork and excavated artefacts. Mayan food covers the gamut from fiery hot foods to delicately flavoured tamales – of course, these do have to be served with incredibly spicy habanero salsa.

If you love street food as much as I do here is a guide to Yucatecan street food which is different from the standard Mexican street food

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 2 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

The process for making Mexican tamales is incredibly labour intensive and we learned so much that I have written this article and included a Tamale Ingredients list and Tamale Recipes & Instructions both of which are Pdf’s that you can download. If you don’t have any Masa de Maiz available you can make your own from dried or canned hominy you can download the recipe here, Recipe for Masa de Maiz.

Want to learn what to drink in Mexico?  Then you need to know about the various refrescos and bebidas you can buy

Maya cuisine tamales

First of all, we learned that you cannot use Maseca Flour to make authentic tamales, which was an eye-opener.  Many of us had tried in the past with very little success.

Table of Mexican Buffet with tacos enchiladas chalupas and tamales on a sunny day

Apparently, you need masa de maiz pura or raw corn dough that you can buy here in Mexico from any tortilleria or even grocery stores.  This “dough” is simply the nixtamaled corn ground with a little water to form a very stiff corn dough. This dough is placed in a bowl and then you add a liquid which can be water or stock, salt, Manteca or pork fat and if you want to you can add Recado Rojo which flavours the dough with herbs, spices and annatto or achiote, chaya or X’pelóns which are fresh beans can also be added depending on the type of tamale you want to make.

Here in the Yucatan, they use banana leaves to wrap and steam their tamales in and the first job is to clean the leaves. Mexican tamales here in the Yucatan use banana leaves and in mainland Mexico, they use corn husks.

cleaning the banana leaves used in making mexican tamales

Next, we learned what to add to the dough and how to press it out for the different tamales. We also added chaya to one dough, Recado Rojo to another dough and to a third dough we added the X’pelóns.

masa dough with chaya added - making Mexican tamales

Masa dough with chaya added.

recado rojo added to mexican tamale dough
Recado rojo dough
making authentic Mexican tamales
X’Pelons for tamale dough

Authentic Mayan food – Making Mexican tamales

The first tamale we made is a speciality of the area and has been made for hundreds of years by the Mayan people. The Brazo de Reyna o Dzotobichay or “the Queen’s Arm” tamale is eaten during Lent.  This type of tamales is a staple of Mayan cuisine and the word “dzotobichay” actually comes from the Mayan word: chay tobil Ts’o, which means “cooked corn dough with Chaya”.

These tamales are made quite long and stuffed with boiled eggs, pepita molida which is ground roasted pumpkin seeds and a lovely tomato sauce.  They are then steamed for an hour and a half before being served; when they are served they are cut into smaller pieces or rounds.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 3 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

The second tamale was made with the X’pelóns added to the dough.  First, the beans are boiled for 3 minutes and then once the dough is ready with the liquid, Manteca (pork fat) and salt added the beans are added and the dough kneaded.  The tamale dough must be soft and pliable and not crack too much around the edges when pressed out.  Our Chef told us you can feel when the dough is ready because your hands will feel soft and a little greasy from the pork fat but the dough does not stick to them.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 4 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Our third tamale was made with Recado Roja added to the dough.  Recado Rojo is an achiote based paste to which water is added to thin it a little and it is added to the dough creating an orangey-red colour.  Both dough’s had melted pork fat (Manteca) and salt added then kneaded until fully incorporated and smooth.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 5 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

In the meantime the Chef had a pot of simmering pork with the bone in on the stove, he removed the foam from the top of the pot and then he blackened a garlic bulb and a white onion to add to the broth.  In a separate pan, he sautéed tomatoes, onion, garlic, Manteca, sweet pepper, and then added the epazote.  He then went back to the meat pot and added pepper, salt, Recado Blanco and simmered for a little longer, adding in the chicken on the bone.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 6 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

After around 30 minutes or so when the meat was cooked it was removed the meat from the pot to allow it to cool and he added into the broth the sautéed vegetables and began to mix some of the raw dough for the “Kol” or thickener for the tamale sauce. In the Mayan language, Kol translates to a sauce that has been thickened with masa. It’s similar to a velouté in French cuisine.  This sauce was to be used to top the meat mixture in the centre of the tamales.  Traditionally these tamales are made with both pork and chicken but the Chef told us these days’ people often make them chicken or pork.

These last tamales were much smaller than the first ones we made.  The dough was pressed by hand or with a tortilla press into a circular shape that was about a 1/8th of an inch thick and around 6-7 inches around, not to thin or the masa tears easily.

We then placed the meat in the centre of the round, topped it with the Kol and then wrapped up the meat and sauce in a kind of sushi/burrito roll wrapping the whole roll with the banana leaf and then placing the tamales in a steamer.  The tamales go into the steamer and cook for around an hour and a half.  You can test the tamales with a knife or toothpick inserted, like a cake if it comes out clean the tamale is ready.  When ready to serve the tamales are unwrapped and topped with either the sauce used to fill the tamales or fresh salsa.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 7 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Tamales are immensely labour intensive and after our class experience, we can easily see why families get together and create a production line for making huge pots of tamales.  They freeze beautifully and can easily be re-heated in the microwave or steamer.  They taste incredible and are a world apart from the fake tamales you get in grocery stores or frozen in North America.

Authentic Mexican Tamales – Ingredients

Download the PDF Tamale Recipe

Download the tamale Ingredients information

Download how to make maza de maiz

Tamale ingredients

Before you make tamales there is a lot you need to know.  Those of us from north of the border (well some of us) have only had tamales made with Maseca the cornflour we think of as traditional Mexican.  Well, the best tamales are made from masa de maiz or put simply the raw corn dough that is a result of grinding the nixtamaled corn before it is dried into flour known as maseca.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 8 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Most Mexicans would not be caught using maseca for their tamales as it is just not the right consistency. masa de maiz (Pura) can be purchased here in Mexico in any tortilleria as this is the dough they use to make tortillas.  In North America, some specialized Latin American shops might carry the dough fresh or frozen, or see if you can find a tortilla producer locally to purchase the dough from.  If this is not available to you there is a way to make the dough yourself from dried corn but that is a whole other blog post.

The dough itself is quite tough and dry and needs some working and additions to make it pliable enough to use either for tamales or for tortillas.  Added to the dough is a variety of ingredients that should include a source of moisture (either water or stock), fat (preferably Manteca or pork fat) in addition you can add a recado (spice mixture or blend), chaya or X’pelóns.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 9 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

s are a traditional Mayan fresh bean.  The beans can be purchased in Mexico between the months of November to April and are sold fresh.  The beans should be cooked in boiling water for around 2 minutes (parboiling) they will turn a sort of greyish black colour. X’pelóns are similar to a fresh black-eyed pea, raw they taste kind of like grass and cooked they are a little sweeter and tender.

Chaya is spinach-like green that goes back thousands of years in Maya cuisine.  You have to be very careful with Chaya as it has a milky substance when the leaves and stems are squeezed that can sting if you get it in your eyes.  The plant also has a hair-thin layer and cannot be eaten raw it must be cooked for at least 20 minutes before eating.  The plant itself is very high in vitamins and protein, in fact, it is almost three times greater than other leafy vegetables.  Here in Mexico, you can ask for your chaya to be cleaned before purchasing.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 10 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Chile X’katic (Sh-kah- teek) This Chili is long and narrow and sort of a triangular shape and will be a light yellow or light green it can be as spicy as a jalapeno. Used in many Yucatecan Mayan dishes it can also be called a guero chilli. It is apparently related to the banana or yellow wax chilli.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 11 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Chile Dulce/Sweet Pepper This appears to be a very small green pepper, it is sweet, not hot and used exactly as the bell pepper.

Epazote (eh-pah-SOH-teh) Is a well-loved Mexican herb, preferably used fresh in North America it can be purchased dried in some Latin American stores.  It has quite a strong smell and it gives a distinct flavour to Mexican dishes.  It is also known as a digestive type of herb and used to cook many bean dishes and is said to relieve the gastrointestinal effects of beans. It has a distinct perfume smell but the taste is quite different and very herbaceous.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 12 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Recados are considered the backbone of Yucatecan cuisine and there are three different kinds; Recado Rojo, Recado Negro and Recado Blanco.

Recado Rojo’s bases are annatto or achiote seeds that are ground and mixed with garlic, oregano, cumin, cloves and coriander, black pepper, allspice and salt.  The combined are formed into a brick so to speak that is wrapped and then used in various dishes by adding liquids.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 13 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

You take a chunk of the paste and mix it with sour orange, or white vinegar to form the paste used for Maya dishes such as conchinita pibil or Chicken Rojo. In the case of the tamales, we used a chunk of the achiote recado and mixed it with water until it formed a thin paste and this was used both in the tamale dough and in the meat mixture to flavour the chicken and pork for the tamale filling.

Chilemole /Recado Negro – it is made with fire-blackened Ancho chiles, white vinegar, a few ground annatto seeds, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, garlic, onion, oregano, epazote and salt.

Recado Blanco/de bistec This spice blend is not only used for a wide variety of meats, pork, seafood, chicken and vegetables. It has distinct cumin, coriander fragrance.

Pepita Molida these are toasted and ground pumpkin seeds. Used to make a traditional Mayan dip or sauce when mixed with roasted tomatoes and cilantro called T’Sikil Pak.

Making authentic Mexican Tamales 14 Making authentic Mexican Tamales

Rick Bayless did a whole TV series about cooking and food in the Yucatan, here is one of his best recipes for  Mexican tamales.

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