A Holiday Tradition and Recipe to Please the Masses


Photo © Matthew Armendariz (mattbites.com), via Food and Wine

An oft overlooked, very tasty, and hands-on holiday tradition of Mexico, the south-western US, and for Latinos everywhere, is the gathering of friends and family on Christmas and New Year’s Eves to cook and eat tamales at a gathering called a tamalada.

Tamales – if you’re not already passionately familiar with them – are cornhusk bundles filled with masa and myriad other ingredients ranging from meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies and more. With roots reaching as far back as 7000 BC, tamales originated in Mesoamerica, and were later traced to the Aztec and Maya civilizations. Used as portable food for their hunters, travelers, and armies, this versatile foodstuff has a rich history as a staple in Latino cuisine and celebrations. Tamales are so durably portable that they are even sometimes used as Christmas stocking stuffers!

tamales hands

Image via Fine Cooking

The tamalada is a tamale-making feast when friends and family come together to cook, eat, and celebrate the holiday. This isn’t a time for some to sit and be served while others toil over the dinner preparations, mind you; it’s more of a cooking session, a family reunion, a party in itself. It’s a chance for the kids to play and the adults to catch up on all the news about the aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends. It’s the warm-up session for the family celebrations to come*.

As one Mexican friend put it, “Growing up, I can remember the Hispanic women in the community gathering in the fall to make tamales. Tamale making was a social event…a time to renew old friendships and make new ones. Often young women would return home to make tamales with their mother.”

The Making of Tamales

If you haven’t had the chance to assemble a tamale before, there are a few tips and tricks that you’ll need to know to be a success out of the gate. Follow these simple steps and you’ll please even the pickiest of tamale connoisseurs.

Video via Slate.com

Masa recipe:

  • 3 1/2 cups masa harina for tamales (20 ounces)
  • 3 cups very hot water
  • 1/2 pound lard
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup chicken stock


  • In a large bowl, stir the masa with the hot water until evenly moistened. Knead several times to make a smooth dough.
  • In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the lard with the butter at medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes.
  • Add the salt and baking powder and beat at medium-low speed until incorporated. With the machine on, add the masa in 4 batches, beating until smooth and scraping down the bowl occasionally.
  • Pour in the stock in a steady stream and beat until the dough is fluffy and soft, about 2 minutes; it should have the consistency of thick corn bread batter.
  • Refrigerate the tamale dough in the bowl for 30 minutes.
  • Return the bowl to the mixer and beat the dough at high speed for 1 minute before assembling the tamales.

MAKE AHEAD The Tamale Dough can be covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 3 days.

A fun read: Too Many Tamales

Maria was feeling very grown-up on Christmas Eve as she helped her mother prepare the tamales for Christmas dinner. When she slipped her mother’s diamond ring onto her finger, she only meant to wear it for a minute. But suddenly, the ring was gone, and there were 24 tamales that just might contain the missing ring. “A warm family story that combines glowing art with a well-written text to tell of a girl’s dilemma.”–School Library Journal, starred review.

Do you have any holiday food traditions or recipes that you would like to share? We’d love to hear from you! Leave them in the comments below. Thanks, and happy holidays!


Thanks to FoodandWine.com for the recipe.

Focus on Mexico – La Tamalada Mexican women share holiday tamale making tradition

History of the Tamale

Fine Cooking

Want to pick up some Spanish for your next tamalada? Learn about our Spanish course selections here!

Are you interested in learning Spanish? Learn more about Rosetta Stone Spanish programs.

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