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May 6, 2011 07:18 AM

Let's Discuss Tamales: Corn Husk or Banana Leaf?

I greatly prefer corn husk.

Where I live, banana leaf seems to be very Central American. They are wet tamales, often with ingredients embedded into the masa.

It seems to me corn husk tamales tend to be firmer, maybe have a stuffing inside the masa, and sometimes the outside even crisps up a little. I definitiely associate them more with Mexico than Central America.

So what is you experience?

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  1. Both. While tamales are popularly considered a Mexican dish in the US, they are in fact very widespread and highly regional. Chicago even has its own regional tamale, steamed in cellophane. Oaxacans cook their tamales in banana leaves with broth to make the masa little moister. They're still as authentically Mexican as those drier corn husk versions popular over here.

    11 Replies
    1. re: JungMann

      Before I read JungMann's post, I immediately though of the Oaxacan tamales.
      I also have a Costa Rican friend whose mother makes a square banana leaf variety. Very moist and light masa, the filling is chicken and raisins. I don't care for them, but if I liked sweet and savory together, they would be luscious. I live in Chicago. Those Chicago ones you are referring to are horrendous. Shouldn't even be called tamales. On the flip side, we have a very good amount of tamalerias bcause of our great Latin population, and we can get many different kinds of real tamales all of the time.

      In my experience, I only prefer tamales that have had the fat whipped enough to produce a light, moist, tender, masa. I make them at home often, and I can tell instantly when a tamale has been made according to my standards. It might be a preference thing, but I just don't like the dense masa. Tender, melt in your mouth, moist masa for me, please. Corn husk or banana leaf doesn't matter. Both will have tender masa if done right (according to me.)

      1. re: gordeaux

        Ah, that makes sense about the fat. I have a neighbor from Costa Rica who gives us her homemade tamales from time to time. I think it's because her family won't eat them. They have vegetables and chicken pieces all throughout the masa, and they fall apart as soon as you unwrap them.

        1. re: gordeaux

          I actually have wistful memories of eating those Chicago tamales for lunch in the CPS. They're far from gourmand, but satisfying in a way food is when you grew up with it and then moved far away from it.

          I forgot that tamales also come in different shapes. I purchase the rectangular corn husk variety from Mexicans, but Filipino tamales are square, pyramidal or rectangular, rice flour-based and wrapped in banana leaves. They are quite different from the Mexican version but a delight when done well.

          1. re: JungMann

            Bolivians make humintas, which are small pyramids wrapped in corn husk.

            1. re: Steve

              Occasionally I get tamales de elote (frozen) from Guatemala or El Salvador that remind me of Ecuadorian humitas.

              1. re: Steve

                I think these are eaten throughout South America. I think I've had the sweet version with brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins.

            2. re: gordeaux

              gordeaux, I, too, like homemade tamales. I don't make them nearly often enough, but I have discovered also that whipped fat makes the best ones. I love light, fluffy, moist tamales.

            3. re: JungMann

              Mmmm, cellophane.....

              Thanks for the reply. So for Oaxacan tamales i can expect banana leaf. Good to know. But is banana leaf limited to Oaxaca, or might I find that somewhere else in Mexico?

              1. re: Steve

                I associate banana leaves with Oaxaca because I'm somewhat familiar with their cooking, but you will find banana leaves used in other tropical areas of Mexico.

                1. re: JungMann

                  True. I've seen banana leaf tamales in Veracruz, Campeche and the Yucatan.

                  While most Mexcian tamales are cylindrical or square/oblong, don't forget that the corundas of Michoacan are typically triangular in shape.

                  One of the things I always bring back from Mexico are the corn husks for tamales, they've still got a "belly button" on the leaf and are much easier to fill and roll than are the U.S. ones. The stalk end of the Mexican husk are pretty wide and still shaped like a cup, the American husks have been machine cut eliminating the curved end of the leaf at the stalk end. .

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    Just google or search in youtube the word: "zacahuil", it will blow your mind. It's a common tamal to 3 states in mexico: San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, and Hidalgo.

            4. I wonder if anyone has figured out what was used first as a wrapping for masa - plantain leaves or corn husks? I think both were in use by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in MesoAmerica.

              Outside of Oaxacan tamales I can't think of any Mexican tamales I have had wrapped in anything but corn husks but fillings and density have varied widely. The very large, thick and dry Mexico City style tamales have very little filling and are not much to my taste. I have had tamales at a place claiming to specialize in the foods of Michoacan that served tamales on a plate that were so dry and hard, they had been sliced for presentation and a knife was needed if you wanted smaller bites. There was no filling. Didn't care for those at all (and have never encountered them anywhere else).

              I tend to prefer Tex-Mex over Mexican tamales because they tend to be spicier however Oaxacan tamales are a different category.

              Others I have had:

              Guatemalan - chuchitas, supposedly snack tamales but as large as 7 oz. are always served in corn husks in my experience. Tamales Negro, Blanca, Colorado are larger, meal sized portions, and always served in plantain/banana leaves. The Wikioracle says there are over a hundred varieties of tamales known in Guatemala but these are the only ones I've had.

              Salvadoran - tamales de elote are served in corn husks, with crema; tamales with puerco or pollo, the only other fillings I've encountered (they also contain chunks of potato and a sauce) are served in plantain/banana leaves.

              Colombian tamales tolimenses, Venezuelan hallacas, and, I think, Nicaraguan nacatamales are served in plantain/banana leaves. These may have more than one meat, vegetables, raisins, nuts - they're awesome and one is typically all you need. I've never had the Nicaraguan variety; our Nica restaurant has never been able to serve it when I ordered it.

              Cuban - corn husk.

              Puerto Rican pasteles, made with mashed plantain or green banana instead of masa - plantain leaf.

              Guatemalan and Salvadoran tamales range from very dry to very moist; seems to depend on the restaurant rather than geography. I prefer the very lush, moist tamales, made in the appropriate wrapper. When I picked up a Colombian tamale to cook at home, I was told to boil it, not steam it. It was falling apart when unwrapped but excellent.

              Then of course there are those tamales in a can wrapped in some sort of waxed paper as I recall.

              2 Replies
              1. re: brucesw

                Banana was brought to the Americans from Africa in the 16th c.

                In parts of Asia, glutenous rice is used to make a similar steamed dough. Wrappings can be banana, or bamboo leaves.

                1. re: brucesw

                  Trinidad &Tobago - Pastel uses corn meal and banana leaf

                  Nothing better around Christmas time...except maybe black cake...

                2. Being from Texas, I like the banana leaf tamal as a novelty. We have an excellent pupusería near to my house that also sells heavenly Salvadoran style tamales in a banana leaf. There are also some Oaxacan style available in my town, and the ones I have tried are delicious. I believe the banana leaf is common in all of the Southern states of Mexico, not just Oaxaca. I know I have seen them at a Veracruz resto here. But having grown up with the corn husk tamales as what tamales meant, something about the perfumed corn husk scent in the masa calls to my soul. I happen to prefer the corn husk versions.

                  1. Corn husk, todo el dia.

                    1. Corn husks, is my choice. That's how my mom made them.
                      I had the banana leaf only a couple times I didn't really care for them to wet. I prefer the firmness of the corn husk tamales.