Cooking with a Pinch of History: Pork Tamales

by Brittany Avila

‘Tis the season for tamales! Tamale-making around the holidays is a familiar tradition to many that dates back to colonial Mexico, when parents would gather to eat tamales after putting their children to bed on Christmas Eve. This was celebrated as symbolically “putting the baby in the manger.”  Unfortunately, the process of making the tamales can be intimidating for those who may not be familiar with this custom in their household. But since people of all origins enjoy eating tamales, I’m here to present this simple how-to on making this savory holiday treat. I’ve combined steps and ingredients from California Missions Recipes cookbook, family recipes, and online how-to’s to make a simple, yet authentic and delicious tamale recipe that everyone can make!

Tamale Filling


4 lbs. pork loin

2 lg. onions (quartered)

4 cloves garlic (minced)

6 pasilla chiles

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp vinegar

4tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp flour

4 cloves mashed garlic

Place pork in a pot, cover with water and add onion and minced garlic. Simmer on low heat for 2.5-3 hours or until pork is tender enough to shred. Use a meat thermometer to check that the pork is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, to be safe. A crock pot can also be used for the cooking.

Although the pork looked ready, I used my thermometer to be sure it was cooked all the way through. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The Aztecs created the tamale, and treated tamale-making as an art, in which simple ingredients were used and put into elaborate designs on or in the tamale. They were considered a delicacy for the elite.

Set the pork aside to cool and keep broth. Once cool, shred the pork with a fork.

I used two forks to shred my pork—one to hold the pork down and the other to pull it apart. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The typical meat used in Aztec tamales was Moctezuma frogs—very different from the pork, chicken or beef commonly used today.

Remove the stems and seeds from chile pods. Caution: Use rubber gloves or a spoon when doing this as the excess exposure to the chile seeds can burn your fingers (which is what happened to mine). Throw chiles, salt and vinegar in a pan and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes.

You’ll hear hissing noises as the chiles simmer on the stove, but don’t worry, this is just the chilies’ way of saying they’re cooking! Photo by Brittany Avila.

Over time, tamales became a food associated with the conquered masses when native foods of Central America became unfashionable with Spanish colonizers.

Transfer chiles, pork broth and mashed garlic to a blender and puree.

I chopped up my chillies a bit before I threw them in the blender just to be sure they got mixed through thoroughly. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The elite in colonial Central America would still indulge in tamales when they traveled outside of the cities into nearby villages.

Heat olive oil on the stove, and add flour. Add pureed pork broth and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. Let this chill when done.

Use a bigger pan than I did for this part so it’s easy to mix your puree and pork together. I unfortunately lost some meat filling overboard to the stove top. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Tamale Dough

I must confess, I did not prepare my own masa as I was short on time. To make this process simpler for yourself, some grocery stores and most Hispanic markets carry masa dough already prepared for tamales. But if you are feeling adventurous and would like to create your own, here is the recipe below.


2/3 cup butter (or lard)

1 cup chicken, pork or beef broth

3 cups masa baking powder (found at Hispanic markets and some grocery stores)

½ tsp. salt

Mix one cup of pork broth and butter.

Combine masa, baking powder, and salt.

Stir into butter mixture, adding more broth as necessary to create a spongy dough.

Finishing the Tamales

Place corn husks in a bowl of hot water for 30 minutes. Drain water and pat corn husks dry with a cloth.

Tamales can be made in a variety of ways with many different types of ingredients. Sometimes the ingredients can provide evidence as to the region the tamale came from. For example, tamales using banana leaves instead of corn husks come from the South and East regions of Mexico, since corn is not as prevalent there.

Make a small slit at the top middle of the corn husk. Spread dough underneath the slit over to the sides of the corn husk to ¼ to ½ inch thickness. Leave space at the bottom of the corn husk. Place 2 tbsp. of filling in center of dough.

Fold sides and bottom of husk in toward center, using the masa filling to hold the sides together. You may also have to add some masa in the hole of the top of the tamale to hold the top shut.

Tamales are not just associated with Christmas celebrations. White tamales are offered to dead relatives on All Saints Day, and the tamalada is a celebration held in Mexico’s countryside specifically for eating tamales.

Place in steamer and simmer for 1 ½ hours.

Place the tamales standing upright, with the slitted top facing upwards. I began by lining my pot with them, and worked in a circle with them towards the middle of the pot. Photo by Brittany Avila.

After steaming, you may remove corn husk and drizzle any remaining warmed chili sauce over tamale.

That’s it! You have officially mastered one of the oldest culinary traditions in the  history of the Americas!

Our Associate Director for Business Affairs Sally Fouhse, SBTHP Intern Mika Thornburg and Associate Director for Historical Resources Anne Petersen all immensely enjoying the final product of this recipe at our Docent Holiday Potluck! Photo by Brittany Avila.


Cleveland, Bess Anderson. California Mission Recipes. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1965, p. 34.

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992, p. 26.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1998.

I also received tips from SBTHP Genealogy and Descendants Committee members and Santa Barbara Presidio descendants  Suzi Calderon Bellman and Debby Aceves, as well as


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