Tamales are made with corn meal dough (called "masa") and some type of filling (either sweet or savory), wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves, and steamed. The singular of tamales in Spanish is "tamal."
Tamales are prepared with a variety of ingredients. Types of tamales which are widely available in Oaxaca include rajas (tomato and chili strips), verde, amarillo, and mole negro; these usually contain chicken. Vegetarians can choose tamales de dulce (sweet tamales), tamales de frijol (bean), or tamales de chepil (an herb). These last two are usually served with spicy salsa. Vegetarians should take note that most Oaxacan tamales are made with lard. Read more tips for vegetarians in Mexico.
Tamales were prepared and consumed in ancient times in Mesoamerica, and also through Central and South America. It is a practical food: nutritious, filling and portable, but the preparation is time and labor intensive. Tamales are associated with some holidays; they are a choice food for Day of the Dead, Christmas posadas and Día de la Candelaria. They're convenient to serve at parties with large numbers of people because they can be prepared ahead of time.
The Oaxacan specialty is tamales de mole negro wrapped in banana leaves. The banana leaves add extra flavor to these tamales. They are served in some restaurants, but the best tamales can be bought from women on the street corners of Oaxaca.