The time I was taught how to make Tamales in the slums of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Tamales. A traditional Mesoamerican dish that comes in all shapes and sizes, filled with whatever tickles your fancy.

A popular street food snack from Central America to the southern parts of South America.

But do you have any idea what it takes to actually make these delights in a leaf?

…I do! Sort of, anyway.
And as it turns out, it is quite the process…

A process I was lucky enough to indulge in during my visit to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.


Quetzaltenango, also and possibly more known by it indigenous name Xela, is the second largest city of Guatemala. A friend of mine happened to be living there at the time, and involved in a project to teach Spanish to illiterate women in the slums.

The slums

Slums of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
View of the slums of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

One day, over a very typical Dutch lunch of bread and chocolate sprinkles, she asks me if I would like to join her and meet some of these ladies?

Well, of course I would!
I would finally get to see how the not-so-privileged live. A piece of the ‘real’ Central America if you will. Believe me, that is not something a blue-eyed blonde-haired girl gets to do very often.

The humble home I got to visit


A humble Xela home on a hill, Guatemala
A humble Xela home on a hill, overlooking the slums of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
The 'patio' area of the home we visited in a Xela slum, Guatemala
The ‘patio’ area…
The 'laundry' room of the home we visited in a Xela slum, Guatemala
…the ‘laundry’ room and bathroom?

As an added bonus – as if I still needed one! – she tells me we would be making Tamales with the family. The doughy kind. 😀

Tamales “cooking class”

Rather than having “learned how to make tamales”, this is where I should admit that, if anything, I “experienced” the creation process. All the while with a huge smile on my face. For the life of me I wouldn’t be able to tell you all the ingredients we used, or the exact steps we completed to achieve the end result.

The stove in the humble Xela home, Guatemala
The stove on which the Magic is about to happen! 😉

I know we used chicken, chopped up tomatoes and bell peppers, and tossed in some raisins. Some of the tamales were made quite spicy, others included so-called “mole”. And of course, all of this involved making a huge batch of ‘masa’, a starchy (and yummy!) dough made of corn.

Making "La Masa para Tamales" in Xela, Guatelama
Making a huge amount of “Masa para Tamales”: the dough of the dish!
The kitchen of the humble Xela home, Guatemala
Meet: more family members! The ingredients are waiting on the table, and everyone is helping out today.

What I do remember is that I felt privileged to be invited to the humble home of this amazingly loving family. That we had a lot of fun with the younger children while cleaning the banana leaves. That we used HUGE POTS on an OPEN FIRE. And that, as a result, we completely smoked up their little kitchen, consisting of 4 walls and a spanned tarp serving as the roof.

Cleaning the banana leaves to wrap the tamales, Guatemala
Having fun while cleaning the banana leaves used to wrap around the tamales.
Grandma stirring the pots in a humble Xela home, Guatemala
Even grandma helps out! Here she is, stirring ‘la masa para tamales’ in a tiny little pot.
Smoking up the kitchen in a humble Xela home, Guatemala
Everybody giggling about us “smoking up” the kitchen…

All of us spent a good while laughing about that, but I also remember wondering how the parents were going to be able to sleep in the adjacent ‘bedroom’. Only separated from the kitchen by a small curtain!

Wrapping the tamales mixtures into the banana leaves

Before we got to this stage of the process, the day had come to an end.
Time to say goodbye! I mean… “See you tomorrow!” “Hasta mañana!

We spent all day cooking the ingredients and preparing the mixtures. Tomorrow we will come back to wrap the different ‘balls’ of filling into squared banana leaf packages tied together with a string.

I am a little sad to say I cannot find any (good) pictures of the end result of our labor. 🙁
We must have made hundreds of tamales over these two days!

Our own home-made tamales, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Enjoying our own home-made tamales, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Tamales recipe

If you are interested in how to make your own tamales, let me leave you with a great recipe from cooking school “El Frijol Feliz” (The Happy Bean 😉 ) in Antigua, Guatemala.

Enjoy making AND tasting them! 🙂


Have you ever eaten tamales? Do you like them?
Do you have a favorite type of tamal?
Ever tried making your own tamales?
(To those of you brave enough the try the recipe I provided, let me know how it went! 🙂 )


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