[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]amal versus tamale. It’s the argument that always comes up around this time of the year across the country as we all get ready to eat our body’s worth — at least — of tamales. And it turns out that your stance on the way to properly address a singular form of tamales has a lot more to do with your identity, nostalgia, and tolerance of the evolution of the Spanish language.
I’ve always been of the tamal school of masa thought. And I’m guilty of getting on my high horse and correcting people who I thought were mispronouncing it by saying “tamale” in English as though it were singular. In proper Spanish, a tamal is singular, and tamales are plural.
That was until a response to one of my annual #tamalnottamale tweets by the diligent investigative immigration reporter Aura Bogado made me question everything.
Is it possible that the seemingly bastardized English word for a single tamal has actually been the correct way to say it all along? As Bogado notes, in the language of the Aztecs, it’s been tamalli — or “tamalé” — all along.
Tamale, even if it makes you cringe, is not technically wrong. It’s both a bonafide entry in the Oxford English language dictionary, and is listed as singular in the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the omnipotent bible journalists strive to follow on a letter-by-letter basis.
The reasoning is that tamale is the English translation or anglicization of the word tamal, and it’s a lonely distinction. Most other famous Mexican dish changes do not change when they make the journey to an English speaking country. A taco is a still a taco, a tostada a tostada, a sope a sope, an enchilada is an enchilada, and so on. All of this still doesn’t change the fact that hearing it or reading it makes a lot of us, who grew up eating them and asking our mamás and abuelas nicely for one more tamal, cringe.
I asked Mr. modern Mexican cuisine himself, chef Enrique Olvera, what team he is on and how he presents the dish in both his Spanish and English menus at his 15 internationally renowned restaurants. (It’s soon to be 16, with his new restaurant in Los Angeles opening in 2019.)
“I am on team tamal,” he confirmed via email. “That is how we write it in Spanish and tamale just sounds weird.” Olvera also won’t go out of his way to correct you if you say tamale in front of him. “Maybe when I am older I will become more grumpy, but for now let people call tamales what they want.”
However if you are in front of chef Carlos Salgado, the pioneering Mexican-American, James Beard Award semi-finalist of Taco Maria in Costa Mesa – it’s a different story.
“I’ll correct anyone, kindly,” he tells me over the phone while he prepares tamales for this holidays season using chalqueño heirloom corn from Mexico for his masa. It’s not too much of a surprise considering his active Twitter account.
This year, he’s making chicken in mole tamales with shmaltz and duck fat in the masa; pork in green chile ones with lard from responsibly raised pigs in that masa; and a vegetable one with poblano rajas, raclette cheese with cultured butter, and creme fraiche in that masa.
Salgado is forgiving if it is an honest mistake.
“You usually get a sense pretty quickly of people who generally respect language and food but don’t know any better and those who are saying it as a way of exotifying and folklorizing something that doesn’t need to be exotic or folkloric,” he says.
He admits that he is not a linguistic scholar and hasn’t studied all of Mexico’s regions, but in his view, tamale should always be tamal. Although he admits that as he’s gotten older, he’s chilled out a bit.
“In my maturity, I try to not engage with as many people as I used to about this. After all, I’m not interested in pushing people away. I’m interested in people just respecting people and culture and eating tamales.”
[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]ut what are your thoughts on the masa matter if you’re a Mexican food enthusiast but not a native speaker of Spanish? You’ll probably use tamale proudly because you don’t speak Spanish, so why pretend that you do?
“You know there’s the right way to pronounce mozzarella or croissant but if you do that as a non-native speaker you can sound more pretentious or annoying than if you just use the accepted non-native incorrect pronunciation,” says Brett Adams, the founder of the Mas o Menos taco pop-up series in Portland, Oregon.
Then you have the people who were born a "tamale" and have grown into "tamal," or the other way around. Like Melissa Montalvo, a third-generation Mexican-American who was born in Moreno Valley, raised in Arizona, and now lives in Guadalajara working for Agave Lab, a startup incubator.
“It’s a process,” she says over Instagram in a poll I conducted on the matter, in which 131 people voted for tamal and only 43 followers voted for tamale. “I grew up not speaking tons of Spanish so tamal-ee was what I knew! But now I’m adapting to tamal in Guadalajara, but still use them both interchangeably.”
Same with Taco USAauthor Gustavo Arellano, who has evolved over the years and come a long way from 2011 when he wrote that the word “tamale” was a case of “outright mongrelization” and that we shouldn’t “allow Manifest Destiny to claim another Mexican culinary icon ala chili.”
A quick check-in with him in 2018 reveals that Arellano is now of the “IT’S BOTH, MY FUCKING GOD” school of masa thought.
“People tend to get attached to the way they’ve been taught to say words in español at home,” says Elizabeth Flores, an editor at Cultura Colectiva, based in Mexico City. She is a professional translator and has translated more than a dozen books from English to Spanish and the other way around. Some are about food, like this one about tomatoes for Fundación Grupo México.
According to her, the “tamal vs. tamale” debate has “an almost emotional connection” with people simply because it becomes a “how my family speaks the language vs. how it’s ‘supposed to be’ written” type of language conflict. In a culture like Mexico, where family always comes before anything, it makes sense that people will go with what feels familiar rather than what they are expected to say.
As for the fact that it sounds a whole lot like the original Náhuatl word for tamales, Flores confirms that it’s a case of true irony. Yes, tamale phonetically sounds exactly like the original word, but it is wrong in Spanish.
The one thing that everyone can agree on regardless of race, language, or background, is to continue eating tons of tamales and just use the form that is the most comfortable to you. Language is always evolving and no one really has any control over it, so there is not much use in trying to confine such a transient thing to rules.
Olvera feels the same. “I think we should not only be tolerant but accepting of [tamal vs. tamale] diversity and let freedom rule the world.”
As for me? I’m still team tamal because my Mexican wife will crucify me if she ever hears me code-switch into tamalewhile speaking English. But really, all of this is pointless because who the hell only eats one tamal or tamale anyway? Its singular form is almost irrelevant.
This post was originally published on December 2018.
Editor for James Beard Award-winning L.A. TACO. Associate Producer for JBA-winning Las Crónicas Del Taco. Former restaurant scout for Jonathan Gold. Co-Author of "Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico (2019, Abrams) and "Asada: The Art of Mexican-Style Grilling" (2023, Abrams).
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