Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Humitas : Chilean Tamales

Among the indigenous foods that have enriched the cuisine of the Spanish creoles, none exceed the umitas, neither for their exquisite taste, nor for the antiquity of their origin.  Zorobabel Rodriguez (Dicionary de Chilinesmos, Santiago, 1875; all translations mine.)  

This time of year, mid February, my wife wants humitas, Chilean tamales seasoned with sweet basil. We usually buy ours at the local plaza, where beginning in late January when the corn reaches the milk stage, a vendor shows up around 12:30 with a cooler full of hot humitas and remains until he sells out.

One and a half, or two if you have a big appetite, along with ensalada chilena (tomatoes and onions with a bit of green chili), makes a great meal.

Tamales seem to be part of the cuisine of every maize-growing Amerindian culture, but while the Mexicans have hundreds of varieties (perhaps thousands), Chile, at the southern extreme of the continent and of maize cultures, has one: although one of the best.   An early account describes them as follows:
The Indian women grind the corn, by the force of their arms, on a concave stone with round stone held in both hands, like painters grind their colors; and adding water little by little while grinding, a paste-like dough is formed, and they take a little of the paste and wrap it in the leaf of an herb that they have for this purpose, or in an leaf of the same corn, or something similar, and placing it in the coals it roasts and hardens and turns out like white bread, and makes its crust by disuse [?--i hace su corteza por desuso], and inside the bun the crumb is somewhat more tender than the crust; and make haste to eat it, because when cold it doesn’t have such a good flavor nor is it as good to chew, because it is dry and rough. These buns are also boiled, but don’t have such a good flavor; and after being boiled or roasted this bread will not keep but a few days and after four or five days it becomes soggy and not good to eat. (Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, 1535, quoted in Zorobabel Rodriguez, Dicionary de Chilinesmos, Santiago, 1875)
By the 18th century, the indigenous recipe seems to have changed slightly with the addition of lard and sugar, as the Mapuche and Spanish kitchens experienced a mutual acculturation:
The Indians, who cultivate eight or nine varieties of [maize] make various foods from it, especially preferring one that they call uminta which is made from fresh tender maize ground between two smooth stones… From this preparation comes a milky dough which they season mainly with fat, salt or sugar, and divided into many small pieces, wrap in the most tender leaves of the maize ears and cook in boiling water in order to eat them. (Juan Ignacio Molina, 1776 Compendio de la Historia Geográfica, Natural y Civil del Reyno de Chile and evidently "borrowed" from Gómez de Vidaurre.)

Today’s humitas are much the same, but with the addition of a little onion and sweet basil. No meat, no sauce; just the slightly sweet taste of fresh field corn, just past the milk stage, cut from the cob and ground, seasoned and boiled in the husk. And on the side, ensalada chilena, and perhaps crisp green beans, lightly dressed with oil.

The name humita, comes from hummita or jumint'a in Quechua, the language of the Inca (and millions of 21st century Peruvians). Throughout the Andes, from Ecuador to Chile, humitas of various types are made, usually with fresh, rather than dried, corn. Fresh maize, cut from the cob and ground, is also the basis of the Mexican tamal de elote, but the use of sweet basil as a seasoning seems particularly Chilean. Although basil is an old world herb of Iranian or Indian origin, it is widely used in Chilean cooking with Mapuche origins. The Mapuche, the indigenous people of central Chile, were (and many are) agriculturalists, planting the Andean trilogy of corn, beans and potatoes, plus dozens of other native crops, and whatever old world domesticates they liked and that grew well in Chile’s climates. But I haven’t learned how or when basil became popular among the Mapuche.

The corn or choclo (from the Quechua chujllu) for humitas is very large, and is a starchy rather than a sweet corn, like the “field corn” used for animal feeds and corn meal. When cooked the starch thickens, producing the familiar tamale texture. Sweet corn prepared in the same fashion remains runny unless corn meal is added for thickening. 

The modern Chilean recipe for Humitas, from the classic chilean cookbok, La Gran Cocina Chilena (8th Edition, 2000) is as follows:
8 ears of corn (choclos humeros)
1 sprig of sweet basil
1 teaspoon of paprika (ají de color) 
 1 onion 
1/8 kg (1/2 cup) lard 
1 cube of chicken bullion 
Salt and pepper 
Mince the onion and sauté in the lard with the paprika. Add the bullion cube dissolved in two teaspoons of water. Cut the corn from the cob and grind or process in food processor with the basil. In a large bowl mix the ground corn and sautéed onion, and season with salt, pepper, sugar and paprika. If you want the humitas to be light colored, add milk. Overlap two corn shucks and place some of the mixture in the center. Fold the shucks over to form a package and tie with string or with thin strips of corn shuck. Boil in abundant salted water for approximately 30 minutes. Serve with ensalad chilena.


  1. There used to be a woman who sat outside of La U's business campus who sold the best humitas in Santiago.

    I would kill to have an humita with aji right about now.

  2. Hummm… I have the impression that you are not in Chile, but somewhere two hours east (?) of here (you posted at 11:02 pm, but it’s only 9:20 pm here) But what’s two hours east of Chile? Mid Atlantic, Iceland? No wonder you are hungry for humitas. Wish I could help.

    Best wishes

  3. Me encantan las Humitas Chilenas !!!!!! So for the first time I will try to make them...am sure it will not taste like the chilean style since i will use corn from another country....but let see :) espero que me resulte.

  4. Espero que si. No se donde estás, pero si hay choclos/elotes tradicionales (no dulces) seguro que tengas éxito. Una recita que me parece bastante tradicional se encuentra en http://cocinartechile.blogspot.com/2008/03/humitas-historias-recetas-similitudes-y.html .

    Buena suerte and pardon the gringo spanish.

  5. Thank you for the history about "humitas", it was very useful!
    My dad who is Chilean said "try with some ground beef (carne molida).

  6. Chilean friends recently explained that "humitas" get their name from the word for “bow ties” since they have similar shape when tied in the middle.... but sorry folks, you have it backwards. "Humita" comes from the Quechua humint'a, and Chileans adopted the term for bow ties.

  7. me gustan las humitas y todo lo queb sea comida de Chile, my lindos pais no importa el tiempo que este alejada de el, cada dia que pasa quiero mas a mis tradiciones,,, saludos a todos los chilenos en donde quiera que se encuentren..


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