Believed to be at least 5,000 years old—they were served by the Aztecs to Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez—tamales are one of Mexico’s most beloved comfort foods. They are made by wrapping a corn-based dough in corn husks, which are then cooked in a double boiler, the vapor inside doing most of the work. Tamales can have savory fillings, usually chicken or pork, or sweet, raisins and other dried fruit. Their flavor, however, is completely unrelated to that of Hot Tamales, a cinnamon candy manufactured in the USA since 1950.
In several parts of the country, including the state of Oaxaca, it is more common to find tamales wrapped in banana leaves. The shape of these tamales, also known as oaxaqueños, tends to be more square and slightly larger. They are not as common locally; however, should you come across them, you will notice how the banana leaves infuse oaxaqueño tamales with a distinct flavor.
One thing not to do with tamales is what former US President Gerald R. Ford, unfortunately, did during a 1976 trip through Texas: He bit into a tamale while it was still wrapped in the corn husk.