Iconic Cuisine: Tamales of the Maya

Tamales are a simple mixture of corn masa (dough) – sometimes filled with sweet or savory fillings and then wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks for cooking. In the hustle and bustle of today’s modern society, the tamale maintains a revered connection between the locals living in the Yucatán region and the spiritual world. The tamale has been a centerpiece of meals in Mesoamerica for centuries, ranging from festive banquets to modest homes. With a Maya heritage dating back to the Classical period, tamales hold a special place in Yucatán cuisine that is still celebrated today. Ancient Mesoamerican culture was rich and diverse, yet the tamale was the cornerstone of the Maya civilization. For the ancient Maya, the tamale represented a human connection to their god of maize, “To the Maya mind from time immemorial there has been something peculiarly sacred about the growing corn.”(1) Evidence from Mayan glyphs and mythology demonstrates the remarkable link between the ancient Mayas, the tamale, and their culture.

Interestingly, the tamale is not a Mayan word but instead derives from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Nahuatl word tamalli translates in English to mean, “a type of bread-like steamed cornmeal.”(2) The word tamale does not do justice to the spiritual connection the ancient Maya people associated with this food.

Today the most recognizable food originating from the Mesoamerica region is the tortilla. However, during the period of the Maya civilization, the tortilla, based on the archaeological record, is a recent addition compared to the tamale. The archaeologist and ethnohistorian Karl Taube noted that the principle utensil for cooking tortillas known as the comal (griddle) has not been found in any ancient Maya archaeological sites. Taube states that the only example of a comal thought to be discovered at the San Jose site located in Guatemala “actually were the covers of composite incense burners.”(3) The Tikal site dating from the Classical Era and also located in Guatemala has experienced a decade of excavation, and still, no signs of comals. Additionally, tortillas and comals are mostly absent from the extensive written record left by the ancient Maya, “no evidence for the tortilla in the Postclassic codices, and the Classic depictions of the tortilla and comal are rare.”(4) One theory proposed by Karl Taube suggests that the prevalence of tortillas among the Maya did not occur until after contact with the Spanish. Taube states, “According to the Dominican friars, it was necessary to teach the Manche Chol how to manufacture tortillas.”(5) The historical record does instead provide ample evidence of the tamale holding a special place in the hearts of the Maya people, “Glyphic forms of the tamale are many and suggest complex lore and terminology surrounding this food.”(6) Writer Paula Morton describes the painstaking process ancient Maya women followed to prepare the masa for tamales. She writes, “They soaked the corn in large pots of water mixed with the fine caustic power produced from the local limestone, rinsed it in cast ceramic colanders (pichanchas), and ground it on the metate to create the basic corn dough, masa.”(7) Grinding the soaked corn on a metate (grounding stone) is tedious. This laborious process has continued with devotion for centuries throughout Mesoamerica. The basic tamale recipe varies from region to region, but the simple corn dough stuffed with a filling remains the structurally the same as the Ancient Mayas.

Using writings left from the Classical period Karl Taube, identified the Mayan glyph for tamale as the phonetic marker known as wa or wah, which is associated with “a word also signifying food or sustenance in a number of Mayan languages.”(8) Taube expands on these findings by drawing a direct connection to wah as more than just food but to life itself. The depiction of the glyph for tamale often appears as a corn curl or notched ball, yet the simplistic nature of the glyph Taube maintains holds a sacred connection. “The term wa’l in Quiché refers to vital bodily fluids, such as blood, breast milk, tears, semen, and vaginal fluid. In Postclassical Mesoamerica, blood offerings widely were considered as maize food for the gods.”(9) The written language provides evidence that the Maya people associated the tamale with nourishment for themselves and their gods. The evidence goes beyond just the written language as Taube writes, “A more direct association of blood with food is expressed in the widely reported sixteenth-century cases of Yucatec Maya placing sacrificial blood upon the mouths of deity images so as if to feed them.”(10) The parallel between the tamale and sacrificial blood is without question. For these ancient people, the tamale above all other foods not only feeds their bodies, but it also feeds them spiritually.

Evidence in the historical record also illustrates the tamale’s symbolism and connection to the pantheon of gods within the Maya cosmos. The central figure in their pantheon of the gods is the God of Maize, known as Hun Hunahpu. By representing the cyclical nature of the maize harvest, the mythical story told a tale of death and rebirth. The maize represented more than just food to the Maya people – it was the bringer of life. The tamale as the product of maize fed them and connected them directly with their God of Maize. Scholars such as Karl Taube draw a direct connection between consuming tamales and the Maya cosmic belief system. The extensive Kerr collection of Mesoamerica art provides an example with figure K5615 Cacao tree with the head of Hun Hunahpu as a pod. Dr. Michael J. Grofe describes this Maya art piece observing the Maize God sitting on the dais, “The water bird pushes an offering of tamales beneath the dais, while his bill touches the mouth of the Maize God.”(11) It is no coincidence that a basket of tamales is given in his honor. The tamale encapsulated months of backbreaking of work and of farmers battling the elements to reap the rewards of the harvest. The tamale represented the ability of the Maya people to provide sustenance and be prosperous in their endeavors.

Today throughout Mesoamerica, home cooks, restaurants, and street vendors all create their version of tamales in modern Mesoamerica. Tamales are a typical dish often served to feed large social gatherings and are crowd favorites for events like birthday parties and festivals. In Mérida, under the shadows of the watchful eye of the ancient Maya, their traditions are mixing with modern tastes. The longevity of the tamale in the region is tied directly to its simplicity. The essence of the tamale is a balance between the corn masa and a filling of choice, therefore, allowing the tamale to be adaptable. Continually evolving, the tamale is not only nostalgic but also serves as a reflection of the people that revered this uncomplicated food that once fed the gods.