Part 3 of my Oaxaca street food series covers my absolute favourite Oaxacan food – tamales! You can get tamales all over Mexico, but Oaxaca is particular well known for them and the rest of Mexico can’t just compare. If you want the real thing, you have to head to Oaxaca. In fact, when I was living in Mexico City, I would often hear a man with a cart full of tamales on the street, blasting “Ricooos Tamaleeees Oaxaquenoossss” out of speakers, meaning Delicious Oaxacan Tamales.
WTF is a Tamale?
Well, for one thing, it is not actually called a tamale. You eat one tamal and you eat two tamales. Your local tamales seller probably won’t correct you if you say “quiero un tamale”, but if you say “quiero un tamal”, you will seem like less of an extranjero. So when you hear the phrase “hot tamale”, you will know that although it’s not really ‘wrong’ because language is something that changes and adapts, you’ll know that the Spanish is not technically correct.
The central ingredient of tamales, as with many Mexican dishes, is corn, and more specifically masa. Masa is essentially a corn based dough and it’s the same substance that is used for making tortillas. This masa is steamed in either a corn husk or a banana leaf (they impart different flavours and are used for different kinds of tamales) and when you cut into the masa you can find all kinds of fillings. Various meats, cheeses, vegetables and sauces can make up the insides of a tamal. Tamales can even be filled with sweets ingredients like pineapple and raisins.
Once this is steamed and cooked, you basically have corn mush with some filling. It might not sound that appealing, but my goodness, it is so freakin’ yummy.
Types of Tamales
As I mentioned, tamales can have many different kinds of fillings. Because mole is so popular here in Oaxaca (Oaxaca is a kind of sauce made with many many ingredients, often containing chocolate, chili, nuts, and fruits) you will find that many tamales sellers offer tamales filled with mole. Here are some of the tamales that you are likely to find around the city…
Tamales de Mole Negro – this is the classic type of Oaxacan tamal, featuring the black mole sauce with pieces of chicken. This is actually not my favourite because I don’t like chocolate all that much, but if you are a mole fan you will love this.
Tamales de Mole Amarillo – Amarillo is my favourite variety of mole, and it actually isn’t very yellow in spite of the name. Mole Amarillo is the most common mole that I see around town for filling empanadas and I love it in tamales too. It is a seed called achiote that gives it the red colour, and this kind of tamal also includes cumin, saffron, ancho chili, and cloves.
Tamales de Mole Verde – If you enjoy fresh, bright flavours, this is the tamal for you. It includes ingredients such as coriander, almonds, lettuce, and poblano chillies.
Tamales Rajas con Queso – This one is great for vegetarians because it is filled up with delicious crumbly fresh cheese, poblano chillies, and tomato.
Tamales Dulce – And then there are sweet tamales. If I’m totally honest, I just don’t like them. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth in the first place, and I would rather find some steaming hot cheese and mole sauce inside my tamal. But if you do err on the sweeter side of life, try one of these filled with raisins or pineapple.
Where Can You Find Tamales in Oaxaca?
First of all, tamales are most commonly found in the morning because people eat them at breakfast time. If you head outside in the evening in search of a tamal, you might be disappointed. At breakfast time, you will also find many sellers offering bread with their tamales. It is common to smush the tamale inside a bread roll, and to eat that on the go with a cup of atole (a traditional corn based drink). Extremely filling, extremely delicious, and in my opinion the very best way to start the day. In the morning time, I tend to buy my tamales from a seller who has a mobile cart that he wheels past my house. Alas, I can’t really tell you where to find him because he is always on the move. This is often the way with tamales sellers and if you hear “Tamales!” being shouted on the street, follow that sound and grab yourself a steamed corn treat before it is too late. There does seem to be a guy who sells tamales in the morning time outside Santo Domingo church, so I would head there in the morning time if you are based centrally in Oaxaca.
Bucking the trend, my favourite tamales seller in the city doesn’t open shop until 2pm and keeps selling until 8pm (apart from on Sundays). This independent seller is based on the corner of Calle Armenta y Lopez and Calle Cristobal Colon – it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the zocalo and she is easy to spot, 1. because she will have a huge steaming pot full of tamales in front of her, and 2. because of the massive line of people that will invariably be queuing up to grab some of that yumminess. As well as just tasting amazing, these tamales are humongous – the biggest that I have found in the city, and I don’t wanna get a reputation as a size queen, but when it comes to tamales, bigger is definitely better.
Some other places where I have enjoyed some very enjoyable tamales are the El Pochote organic market and the 20 de Noviembre market. And if you are one of those types who prefers not to eat on the street, first of all you should snap out of it, and secondly, you will find that in the restaurants across the city, tamales are often sold. Oaxaca is a Mexican destination known for its outstanding food culture, and there are very few restaurants here that don’t take the opportunity to show off their local fare with pride.
But there is one thing that makes me really sad about tamales. It’s impossible to find a tamal late at night. I know that they are typically breakfast foods, but they would also make great stumbling out of the club food. Imagine that smokey corn deliciousness in your tummy after a night of beers. It would be the best. I guess I’ll just have to start my own tamales business catering to the night-time munchies of the people of Oaxaca.
Now go out there and grab a tamal!