From the Sierra Madre mountain range to the beaches, valleys and even rainforest, Chiapas state boasts some of the most varied weather, terrain and ecosystems in Mexico. Combined with archeological sites, indigenous peoples and a fascinating history, this makes it a must-visit destination.
Chiapas cuisine is as varied as its landscape. To the uninitiated, it may seem simple, but its elegance and sophistication are obvious at first bite, giving away the complex ingredients, flavours and history behind it. Despite the rich variety on offer, there’s one staple that’s found in all corners of the state: tamales. In the third of our five-part series on Mexican gastronomy, we take you on a journey through Chiapas and its incredible variety of tamales.
“Si es tamal, no está mal” – this rhyming Mexican phrase says it all: “You can’t go wrong with a tamal”
So what is a tamal? It’s a dish prepared with corn dough and wrapped in a leaf – usually corn or banana leaves. It can be sweet or savoury, stuffed with meat, vegetables or hot peppers. Sometimes tamales are served without the corn dough, such as tlapiques, made with spiced vegetables, fish and poultry, wrapped in corn or totomoxtle leaves and grilled on a flat metal hot plate called a comal. Whichever way you make them, they're delicious.
Region 1: the Pacific
Because of their coastal location, Pacific tamales are stuffed with fish, seafood and game and accompanied by flowers, dairy, green vegetables and herbs. They’re a delicacy for those lucky enough to try them. The classic Pacific tamal is made with longnose gar, a ray-finned fish.
Region 2: Sierra Madre mountain range
Family-run orchards and domestic and mountain livestock breeding are the main ingredient sources in this region, so hot peppers and fruits grown in people’s gardens are typical tasty fillings for tamales. Due to the temperate-to-cold climate, ingredients are less varied than in the Pacific region, but this is no hurdle for inventive cooks.
The creativity of the local cuisine is evident in choon or tlayuyo tamales, which are made up of multiple layers of beans and broad beans.
Region 3: the Highlands
Highland tamales are cooked by indigenous people and are very simple. They’re usually slightly dry as they don’t have any animal fat to moisten them, and they’re baked or grilled in a comal. The main ingredients are beans, hot peppers and scented herbs, but on special occasions they may also include other ingredients.
Sweet tamales are made with tender corn, while ball-shaped tamales are more common near the Guatemalan border, made with corn and hot peppers, meat and other more sophisticated ingredients.
Region 4: central valleys
The Grijalva River stretches to the central area of the state, so agriculture and stockbreeding are the main trading activities. This has an impact on the local tamales, which are made with vegetables, fragrant herbs and meat, as well as products grown around the lakes.
Sok Ané, a tamal made with beans, shrimp and Mexican pepper leaf, is usually prepared for the Patron Saint celebrations in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
Region 5: eastern mountains
In this rainforest area, simple tamales are made with corn, beans and fragrant herbs, cooked by Ch’ol, Tojolabal, Tzeltal and Lacandon indigenous groups. Typical dishes of the eastern mountains are patz tamales, made with tender corn grains, chuti with momo; “snail” tamales with Mexican pepper leaf; and petul or pitaúl tamales, made with corn and beans.
Region 6: northern mountains
The miscegenation of the northern mountains region is translated into its tamales, which are made up of typical indigenous ingredients like chicken, beef and pork, corn, beans and Mexican pepper leaves. They also add cheese and delicious, rich mole sauce.
Region 7: Gulf plains
Gastronomy in this area is closely linked to that of the adjacent state of Tabasco, so the rivers and lakes are a main source of ingredients. Fish, jellyfish and reptiles are used as filling for tamales, alongside poultry, grains, mushrooms and local plants.
The region is also known for its popular iguana tamales on the beaches of Catazajá. Less adventurous eaters might want to try Palenque chipilin tamales, served with thick tomato sauce.
The perfect pairing
For the perfect accompaniment for tamales, try these three typical and unique corn-based Chiapas beverages:
Pozol or pochotl – A Maya-Chontal beverage made with corn, cacao and sugar
Tascalate or taxcalate – A Mayan beverage made with corn, cacao, annatto, sugar and cinnamon
Pox – A Mayan ceremonial corn-based eau-de-vie. Its name means ‘medicine’ in tzotzil and tzeltal languages and it’s used in healing rituals. Communities use it to bring people together, as it’s known for warming up and embracing the heart.
Chef Marta Zepeda’s market guide to Chiapas
It’s impossible to visit Chiapas and not go to its markets and tianguis (street markets), so we asked Chef Marta Zepeda from Hotel Tierra y Cielo in San Cristóbal de las Casas to list her top picks for the state.
José Castillo Tielemans Market
Where? Gral. M. Utrilla, on the corner of Nicaragua, Barrio de Mexicanos
When? Everyday from 7am to 6pm
What to buy? Vegetables, fruit, garden produce and all kinds of flowers, both natural and artificial; meat and poultry; wool, log, clay pots, medicinal herbs, edible herbs and farmhouse herbs.
Don’t miss: Ball-shaped tamales with sour atole and wafers made by a lady at the left-hand side of the main gate. Arrive by 1pm at the latest, before they run out.
Handicraft Market and Highlands Museum in the former Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
Where? Av. 20 de Noviembre s/n, Barrio del Cerrillo, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas
When? Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 6pm
What to buy? Chiapas indigenous textile collection by Francesco Pellizzi and the textile collection from the Mayan World, with contemporary and Guatemalan pieces.
Don’t miss: Just by the museum you'll find typical corn on the cob and grilled or boiled chayotes.
Carajillo: tostador y cafetería
Where? Real de Guadalupe 24, Centro Histórico, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
When? Daily from 8am to 11pm
What to buy? As it’s a roaster and a coffee shop, this is the place to find the best coffee beans from the Chiapas Highlands.
Don’t miss: The free coffee tasting activities every Wednesday at 8pm.
Where? Real de Guadalupe 46-A, Centro Histórico, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
When? Every day after lunch, from 1pm to 7pm
What to buy? Taste and buy different kinds of pox and take a tour through the history of the drink.
Don't miss: Quince, fig and rosemary pox. Also try the cacao truffles.
Inter vino San Cristóbal
Where? Real de Guadalupe 52, Centro Histórico, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
When? Monday to Sunday from 10am to 9pm
What to buy? Mexican wine and craft beer.
Don't miss: Live music shows on Saturdays and Mexican film showings.
Dulcería San Cristóbal
Where? Insurgentes 18, Centro Histórico, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
When? Daily from 8am to 8pm
What to buy? A wide variety of sweets, bread and cheese.
Don't miss: Gaznates (Italian meringue-filled cake made with fried dough).
Healthy Food Tianguis
Where? Hotel Tierra y Cielo. Av. Benito Juárez 1, Centro Histórico, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
When? Wednesday and Saturday from 10am to 3pm
What to buy? Fresh and seasonal products; organic fruit and vegetables. Typical Chiapas products: honey, cacao bean, coffee, cheese, corn, beans and bread.
Don't miss: Native corn tostadas with seasonal vegetables by Doña Salome, blue and yellow corn tortillas by Doña Reina, farmhouse cheese by Ceci (dry cheese, pepper and hot peppers) and blue corn quesadillas with seasonal stuffing.