Vegetarian Tamales for Cinco de Mayo

By Monica Shaw •

This Sunday is Cinco de Mayo, Spanish for “fifth of May”, a day to break out the piñatas and margaritas in celebration of Mexican heritage and culture. Monica shows how the day is celebrated, particularly in the US with a focus on lots of food. She shares a delicious recipe for vegetarian tamales.



For Mexicans, Cinco de Mayo honours their country’s victory over France during the Battle of Puebla in 1862. But the holiday has taken on significance all over the world, including my native America where Cinco de Mayo celebrations are epic and always involve lots of food.


My first introduction to Mexican celebration food came from my Aunt Sue and her husband Augie, whose family is from Mexico. Sue often talked about their holiday tamale-making adventures with Augie’s side of the family, and on a few occasions she even shared with me some leftovers tamales to try for myself.
Sue probably didn’t realise how much I coveted these tamales, which are basically dumplings made of masa harina (a type of corn flour made from specially treated corn), filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, then steamed in corn husks and served with red sauce or mole (a chilli-chocolate sauce that’s to die for). Tamales aren’t exactly quick to make, but they’re fairly easy when you get lots of people involved to help make the tamale fillings and roll them up in their corn husks. This is what makes tamales perfect for Cinco de Mayo: they not only celebrate food and Mexican culture, but also togetherness. They’re also especially good when washed down with margaritas or Mexican beer.
Tamales are often made with lard and filled with pork or chicken (see carnitas). However, I learned how to make vegetarian tamales from my friend Rachel Demuth who runs the Vegetarian Cookery School. Filled with butternut squash and goats cheese, they are absolutely phenomenal with mole sauce. I made these tamales for a recent party last Easter and they went down so well that guests demanded I have another tamale party this summer. Which is great because it offers another opportunity to experiment with tamale fillings and, most importantly, enjoy cooking with friends and loved ones, which is in my mind the very best part of Cinco de Mayo and indeed all Mexican-themed celebrations.
In addition to mole sauce, I also recommend serving these with fresh salsa and refried black beans, following a starter of sopa de maize (Mexican corn soup). You can buy Mexican ingredients in person or online from London-based Cool Chile Company and Bristol-based Otomi. Please note that masa harina cannot be substituted with corn meal, corn polenta and especially not corn flour.


Vegetarian Tamales

Serves: 8

The number of tamales you get will depend on how big you make your tamales. I erred on the small side, which made about 16 tamales. Feel free to experiment with fillings - pork, chicken and cheese are classic tamale fillers, but have fun and don’t be afraid to try something crazy.


  • 6 dried corn husks


For the masa


  • 200g masa harina
  • 50g butter, softened
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 50ml milk
  • 100ml vegetable stock

For the filling


  • 100g goat cheese
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and diced into small cubes
  • 1 chopped fresh red chilli
  • 4 cloves garlic, whole with the skin on
  • A few sprigs of thyme
  • Chopped coriander
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Olive oil



  1. Roast the squash in a hot oven (180C / 350F) with the garlic, chilli, thyme, and olive oil until it is soft. This should take about 30-40 minutes. When cooked, remove the garlic from its skin, mush it up with the spatula and stir it through the squash. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir through some chopped coriander and lime juice.
  2. Soak the corn husks in hot water for 30 minutes. When they are soft rinse them under running water as you separate them. Lay them flat on a plate and keep them covered with a damp cloth.
  3. To prepare the masa, beat the softened butter in a mixing bowl, until soft and fluffy.
  4. Mix the masa harina with the salt and baking powder.
  5. Beat some of the dry mixture into the butter and then add a little milk then some more dry mix, then some stock until everything is combined.
  6. The masa should be the consistency of scone dough, soft and pliable, if too dry and a little more milk, if too wet a little more masa harina.
  7. To assemble the tamales, lay a husk on the table with the fat end away from you. Place a sausage of masa (30g) in the middle of the husk, starting at 1cm from the fat end press the masa down leaving a border down each side, big enough so that the husk can wrap over the filling. Press the masa down to about ⅔rds down the husk and flatten the sausage.
  8. Top the masa with a little bit of roasted squash and smear on some goat cheese. Roll the corn husk with one end open and the other end like a burrito so that the filling gets sealed by the masa (this video is helpful).
  9. Tear a thin strip off a long husk and tie around the open end of the tamale to seal it all together.
  10. Steam the tamales in a vegetable steamer for 45- 60 minutes. You can tell when they are done because the masa will be soft and sponge like.
  11. Serve them as soon as possible with mole and salsa.


Inspired? For more ideas for Cinco de Mayo try these spicy vegetarian tacos with guacomole or campfire chilli and coffee con carne by Matthew Tomkinson.


Monica Shaw

Monica Shaw is web consultant working with chefs, restaurants & food producers, to help them make use of the internet to improve their businesses. She's also a freelance writer, her credits include The Daily Telegraph, Chef Magazine and food mag. Monica enjoys experimenting with vegetables & creating delicious & healthy dishes, a topic covered on her blog She is working on The Healthy Vegan Breakfast Book, due to be published in March 2013

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