Let’s Settle the Debate: Is It Pronounced Tamal or Tamale?


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The humble tamal, a cornerstone of Latin American cuisine, has ignited a debate that goes beyond its delicious taste—what’s the correct term: tamal or tamale? We must delve into linguistic origins, regional variations, and cultural contexts to settle this debate.

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The Origin of “Tamal”

The correct word in Spanish is “tamal” for the singular form, derived from the Nahuatl word “tamalli.” Nahuatl, spoken by the Aztecs in central Mexico over 500 years before the Spanish conquest, is the source of many words used in modern Spanish. They were already a staple in the Aztec diet, and their preparation and enjoyment have continued through centuries.

The use of “tamal” spread throughout Mexico, and it was also common in what is now Texas, which was part of Mexican territory until 1836. However, as Texas became part of the United States and English became the dominant language, the word “tamale” emerged as an English adaptation.

Did you Know…

The shift from “tamal” to “tamale” results from linguistic adaptation. English speakers found “tamale” more accessible to pronounce, leading to its widespread use in the United States, particularly in regions with a robust Tex-Mex culture. Thus, the world was divided into two groups: those who say “tamal” and those who say “tamale.”

Linguistic Adaptation and Acceptance

From a linguistic perspective, it is correct to say “tamal” in the singular and “tamales” in the plural. However, the word “tamale” exemplifies how languages evolve and adapt, influenced by the phonetics of the region in which they are spoken. Martinez emphasizes that words from other languages often adapt to new phonetic environments without losing their original meaning. “We can’t laugh at someone saying tamale, but we can mention how it’s said elsewhere.”

Tamales Around Latin America

Tamales are not unique to Mexico; they are a significant element of gastronomy in various Latin American countries, each with its adaptations and names. For example:

●      Guatemala: Known as “chuchitos” or “patches” when made with potatoes.

●      Venezuela: Called “hallacas.”

●      Andean Region (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina): Known as “humitas.”

●      Brazil: Referred to as “pahmona.”

●      Costa Rica: Called “yoles.”

●      Colombia: Known as “bollos.”

●      Honduras: Called “nacatamales.”

The differences extend beyond names to preparation methods. Pilar Zazueta, food historian and associate professor at UT Austin, explains that regional differences primarily lie in masa preparation. In some regions, the nixtamalization process, which involves simmering mature corn kernels in an alkali solution, enhances the nutritional value of the masa. In contrast, other regions use powdered or fresh nixtamalized masa or even just ground corn without nixtamalization.

Tamales or Tamals Unite the Family

Ultimately, whether you say “tamal” or “tamale,” both terms are rooted in a rich cultural and linguistic history. The debate highlights how languages and traditions adapt and evolve. At Delia’s, we celebrate this diversity and the delicious traditions that bring families together, especially during the holiday season. So, whether you prefer tamal or tamale, remember that enjoying this beloved dish truly matters.

Embracing Both Terms with Delia’s

If you want to savor some of the best tamales, head to Delia’s. Known for its authentic flavors and traditional preparation, Delia’s offers a variety of flavors that cater to every taste, from classic pork to sweet cream. Each bite at Delia’s is a celebration of rich culinary heritage. Whether you call them tamales or tamales, you’ll leave Delia’s with a satisfied appetite and a deeper appreciation for this delicious tradition.

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