The tamale is the quintessential Latin holiday food.

Packets of corn dough with a savory or sweet filling typically wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, tamales are an essential component of the Christmas holiday feasts.

Between the different dough flavorings, fillings and regional styles, there are endless variations of tamales, but all tamales have certain characteristics in common.

Meat, vegetable, cheese or sweet fillings are placed atop masa (corn) dough and wrapped in a corn husk, banana or avocado leaf and then steamed.

The Venezuelan version of the tamale ritual are called hallacas.

"We fill ourswith olives, raisins, red pepper, chicken in a tomato sauce, cooked egg and almonds," explains Irena Stein, owner of the Azafran Café in Baltimore. "My grandmother would make them and freeze them ahead of time so they would be ready to steam when company came on the holidays."

Baltimore chef Cesar Calderon hails from Durango, Mexico, where tamales start to come out on Dec. 16th for a year-end celebration called Posadas, which commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

"During the whole two weeks of Posada, no one works ? everyone just parties," he said.

Calderon said he remembers the numerous celebrations for Christmas with tamales, bunelos (a sweet, fried flour tortilla) and ponche (a hot punch with tequila).

"In Puerto Rico, we call them pastelles," said Daisy Martinez, host of the PBS show "Daisy Cooks!" and author of "Daisy Cooks!: Latin Flavors That Will Rock Your World."

"Making tamales is a family event," she said. "They are labor-intensive to make, but the whole family participates. It ends up being more of a social event than a food thing."

"I've had the same job when making tamales since I was a kid," Martinez said, "and that?s wrapping the banana leaves."

For those from Central America, South America or the Caribbean, tamales are synonymous with celebration.

"I like to say as a Puerto Rican that we start the party a day before and end it one day after," Martinez said.

On the web

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