Tamales are a delectable Latin American dish made with corn dough and filled with meat and veggies, then steamed in corn husks. Although this sounds like a dish you would enjoy in a Mexican restaurant or while traveling in Latin America, we can look closer to home for a taste of this tasty food. It turns out that the Mississippi Delta has their own version of the tamale, the Delta tamale, and it's every bit as tasty as the traditional Latin American version. The question is, what's the difference between a Delta tamale and a Mexican tamale?
What Are Delta Tamales?
The Mississippi Delta is the region around the Mississippi River between Memphis and Vicksburg, an area full of rich cultural traditions. One of the most notable dishes when it comes to their food culture is the Delta tamale. No one knows for sure how this Latin American dish came to be a staple of this southern region, but most believe that Mexican migrant workers who worked on farms throughout the region were the first to bring tamales.
Since corn and cornmeal were already popular in Southern cooking, the Mexican tamales were simply adapted to contain cornmeal in place of masa, which is the corn dough typically used. However, others say that the Native Americans in Mississippi were the first to make tamales in the Delta.
Many Mexican migrant workers came in the early 20th century, at the same time a the Great Migration, when thousands of African Americans moved from the fields of the south to cities and urban spots in the north and midwest. The African American workers who worked the farms alongside the Mexicans soon caught wind of this portable, delicious dish, and began making and selling them with their own twist.
Alongside catfish and meringue pie, Delta tamales are considered the classic food of this part of the south. Robert Johnson even wrote a song about them, called "They're Red Hot." These spicy tamales have evolved to eventually become the staple of Southern cooking they are today.
As explained by Anne Martin, author of "Delta Hot Tamales: History, Stories & Recipes" and founder of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Mississippi, "Over the decades, various cultures put their spin on the tamale until we have the hot tamale we love today."
What's the Difference Between a Delta Tamale and a Mexican Tamale?
Although these two types of tamales come from the same root, the Delta tamale has evolved to become a thing of its own. One of the biggest differences between the two is that Mexican tamales are made with masa harina, while Delta hot tamales are made with cornmeal. This makes them grittier in texture than their original.
The other distinction is the cooking process. Mexican tamales are steamed, and those in the Delta are are simmered in a large pot. This tamale making method allows spicy juices to come out of the tamales as they cook, resulting in a tasty sauce to enjoy with the meal.
Delta tamales typically have a meat filling like beef, pork or turkey, flavored with spices like chili powder, cumin, garlic powder and paprika. Depending on the tamale maker, they're made with variations, like being deep-fried or covered in chili. This tasty dish is usually spicy, but the exact spice level depends on the cook.
Mexican tamales, on the other hand, are usually filled with a savory mix of meat and vegetables. They're sometimes filled with simply beans and cheese, and there are also sweet varieties made with dried fruit. However, the exact recipe always depends on who's cooking.
Where to Try Delta Tamales
Since Delta tamales are such a staple of the region, there are many places to try the iconic dish. The Hot Tamale Trail is a trail made by the Southern Foodways Alliance, connecting spots for the best tamales. This legendary path includes restaurants like Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, Meals on Wheels Hot Tamales and Tacos in Yazoo City, and Solly's Hot Tamales in Vicksburg.
If you find yourself in Greenville, Scott's Hot Tamales is a famous tamale restaurant for Delta tamales. The owner, Elizabeth Scott, discovered tamales in Texas, and she later opened the shop and created her own tamale recipe with beef brisket. Another well-known tamale spot in Greenville is Doe's Eat Place, run by a Sicilian family. Their tamales are made with parchment paper rather than corn husks, resulting in fattier, greasier tamales.
There's also the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, a yearly festival dedicated solely to the eating and cooking of this famous dish. The best way to truly understand the difference between Delta tamales and Mexican ones is by eating them!