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Nerdy Science in the Kitchen

What Can You Serve with Tamales?



close up of pile of tamales
Tender, flavorful tamales add an authentic Mexican taste to your weeknight dinner. Find some good side dishes to go with your tamales.

Maybe you’ve heard of tamales from friends or seen them on your local Mexican restaurant’s menu, yet you’re not quite sure what these are, exactly. Well, tamales are typically made of corn dough and filling, wrapped in steamed corn husks or banana leaves.

Tamales originated in Mesoamerica, as the area between North and South America was once called. Many countries boast their own cultural take of this portable dish; however, the Mexican version of tamales has long reigned as most popular in the United States.

While many people believe that tamales are already a perfect stand-alone meal, it’s always better to try fppr an elevated delectable experience by adding tasty, complementary side dishes. If you’re not sure what to serve with tamales, don’t worry. We’ve got it all figured out for you!

Click the type of side dish you want to create below or take a look at all our side dish recipes to get inspired.

Tamale Side Dishes: Beans

Tamale Side Dishes: Vegetables

Tamale Side Dishes: Sauces and Dips

Tamale Side Dishes: Beans

If you’re thinking of serving tamales at a dinner party, having a side dish or two prepared will make it a more complete and exciting meal. In fact, beans are one of the top choices in Northern Mexico as a side for tamales, as they add even more authenticity to this Mexican dish.

mexican rice and beans on white plate

Mexican Beans and Rice

Beans and rice–a delicious staple for millennia. Have a hearty and healthy bean rice dish that’s both convenient to make and ready to serve in thirty minutes!


  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion (diced)
  • 1 large poblano pepper (diced)
  • 1 large clove garlic (minced)
  • 1 cup medium-grain white rice (uncooked)
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp cumin (ground)
  • 1 tsp oregano (dried)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper (ground)
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups vegan chicken-style broth
  • 15 oz canned black beans (rinsed and drained)


  • Add olive oil to a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion when the oil becomes hot. Then, sauté until onion softens for about 3 minutes.
  • Add the garlic and sauté for another minute.
  • Add paprika, rice, cumin, oregano, sea salt, and black pepper. Stir to ensure that the rice will be coated with oil.
  • Add the tomato paste, then stir continuously for a minute.
  • Add the broth and black beans. Allow to boil, then reduce heat.
  • Cover the pan and let it simmer for 20 minutes to ensure rice becomes tender.
  • Serve while hot.
spoonful of black beans

Simple Black Beans with Lime

You can whip up this simple-to-make side dish in less than 20 minutes. The ingredients, especially the chili powder, add a little kick to the beans, making this side dish perfect to serve with tamales. A million Mexican restaurants can’t be wrong!


  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 scallions (thinly sliced)
  • Salt and ground pepper (coarse)
  • 2 cans black beans (rinsed and drained)
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice


  • Heat oil in a saucepan at medium heat. Add the white part of scallions, then season with salt and pepper. Cook for about 3 minutes to soften the scallions.
  • Add the chili powder, beans, and 1/4 cup of water. Cook for about 5 minutes. Then, remove the pan from heat. Add the lime juice, and season with salt and pepper.
  • Add the green part of scallions as garnish. Then, serve.
close up of black bean soup in white bowl with slice of jalapeno on top

Spicy Black Bean Soup

All the ingredients of this spicy black bean soup are pantry staples, so there’s no need to sweat it if you need to make this side dish on the fly. The big plus is that, since you can create this delectable side dish in less than 30 minutes, it’s the perfect choice for what to serve with tamales.


  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups red onion (chopped)
  • 1 4-ounce can mild green chilies (diced)
  • 2 garlic cloves (chopped)
  • 1 tbsp jalapeño chili with seeds (chopped)
  • 1 tbsp cumin (ground)
  • 2 pcs of 15 oz cans black beans (undrained)
  • 2 cups low-salt chicken broth (canned)
  • 8 tbsp fresh cilantro (chopped)
  • Sour cream
  • Tortilla chips


  • Heat oil in a large pot at medium-high heat. Add the green chilies, onion, jalapeño, cumin, and onion. Sauté for about 5 minutes to ensure the onion is tender.
  • Add the beans, juices, and broth. Once the soup boils, reduce the heat. Then, cover and let it simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Puree soup in 3 cups per batch in a blender. After, put back the puree to the same pot.
  • Add cilantro, then add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Transfer the soup into the small bowls. Add sour cream and tortilla chips on top. You can add 2 tbsp of cilantro to finish the recipe.

Tamale Side Dishes: Vegetables

If you prefer healthier side dishes when considering what to serve with tamales, then vegetables are definitely your best bet. With the creative vegetable recipes below, you’ll practically never run out of great and hearty (but healthy!) side dish ideas.

glass mug filled with corn chowder

Simple Corn Chowder

How can you say no to creamy and buttery corn chowder? Its sweet taste and richness make it a perfect complement to tamales. Plus, you can add meats or other veggies to this side dish, or leave it as-is; it’s an ideal recipe already.


  • 6 slices bacon (diced)
  • ½ medium onion (diced)
  • ½ cup celery (sliced)
  • 1 ½ cups potato (peeled and diced)
  • 1 pc bay leaf
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • Black pepper
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3 cups corn (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream


  • First, cook bacon until it becomes crispy. Reserve the drippings.
  • Sauté celery and onion at medium heat for 5 minutes until it becomes tender.
  • Add bay leaf, potato, chicken broth, pepper, and thyme. Once it boils, reduce the heat to low and cover. Let it simmer for 8 minutes until potatoes become tender.
  • Add the corn. Let fresh corn simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, frozen corn for 5 to 6 minutes.
  • Mix the milk and cream, then add it into the soup. Wait for it to boil while you stir. Let it simmer for two minutes until it thickens.
  • Blend 2 to 3 cups of soup, then bring the blended mixture back into the soup.
  • Remove the pan from the heat. Then, add the bacon and green onions to garnish.
close up of jicama slaw

Quick Jicama Slaw

This jicama slaw has a great balance of sweetness and heat. This side dish is rich with flavors and textures, making it a delicious side dish for tamales.


  • ½ small head red cabbage (thinly sliced)
  • 2 pcs sweet apples (matchstick-cut)
  • 1 pc small jicama (peeled and matchstick-cut)
  • 1 cup carrots (matchstick-cut)
  • ½ cup red onion (diced)


  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 3 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • ¼ fresh cilantro (chopped)
  • 1 tsp white sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes
  • ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground black pepper


  • In a large bowl, add the apples, carrots, red onion, and jicama.
  • In a small bowl, add olive oil, lime juice, rice vinegar, salt, sugar, red pepper flakes, ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Whisk until the dressing becomes smooth.
  • Pour the dressing mixture into the cabbage mixture, then combine.
  • Let it slaw sit for 10 minutes to mix flavors.
avocado salad in blue and white bowl

Avocado Salad with Lettuce and Mango

Avocado salad itself is already a special treat. Still, when you add lettuce and mango to the mix, it becomes sweeter, crunchier, and more irresistible when served with tamales.


  • 1 pc green oak lettuce (sliced into smaller pieces)
  • 1 pc large avocado (diced)
  • 1 pc large mango (diced)
  • 2 tbsp slivered almonds (toasted)
  • 2 tbsp dried cranberries
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar


  • In a large bowl, add lettuce, mango, avocado, mango, almonds, and cranberries.
  • Add oil and vinegar to a small bowl. Use salt and pepper to season. Then, pour into the lettuce mixture.
  • Combine the ingredients, then serve fresh.
mozzarella and tomato salad on white table

Mozzarella Tomato Salad

An Italian side with Mexican? Why not? This mozzarella tomato salad is a hassle-free dish that you can make in only 5 minutes. The presence of cherry tomatoes with mini mozzarella cheese balls definitely enhances the tamale experience.


  • 8 oz cherry tomatoes (ripe)
  • 6 oz mini mozzarella cheese balls
  • 1/4 red onion (thinly sliced)
  • 1 garlic cloves (minced)
  • 1 tsp white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro
  • Salt and pepper


  • Prepare the ingredients by cutting the tomatoes and cheese in half.
  • In a bowl, add the tomatoes, onions, and cheese.
  • Add the vinegar, oil, and garlic. Use salt and pepper to taste.
  • Mix the ingredients well. Top with fresh cilantro. Then, serve fresh.

Tamale Side Dishes: Sauces and Dips

If you want to create some sauces and dips to serve with your tamales, the great news is that practically whatever you choose will work perfectly well. To help you find out what to serve with tamales best, we recommend these three different dips and sauces.

dot of salsa on tortilla chip

Best Red Salsa

This best red salsa recipe possesses the authentic Mexican salsa taste. Plus, it’s so convenient to make: only six ingredients and a prep time of less than 10 minutes!


  • 1 can of 15 oz fire-roasted tomatoes (diced)
  • 1 clove garlic (chopped)
  • ½ cup white onion (chopped)
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro
  • ½ medium jalapeño (seeds removed and roughly chopped)
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt


  • Discard 1/3 cup of the tomato juice from the can.
  • Add the garlic, tomatoes, tomato juice, onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and jalapeno to the food processor.
  • Process the mixture until it becomes smooth. Scrape the sides frequently. Add lime juice and salt to taste, if necessary.
  • Serve it fresh. You can keep leftover best red salsa covered in the fridge for ten days.
sour cream dip in glass bowl on white background

Easy Homemade Sour Cream Dip

Why not make a homemade sour cream for half of what it cost premade? This version is super easy to make, and it always adds a great flavor to your tamale entrée.


  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 3 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp chives
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp dill
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • Salt and pepper


  • In a large bowl, add the mayonnaise, sour cream, chives, garlic powder, dill, and onion powder.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Chill for at least 30 minutes before you serve.
bowl of mexican crema

Homemade Mexican Cream

This homemade Mexican crema has the perfect creamy richness that adds an extraordinary flavor to spicy main dishes, including tamales.


  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • 1/8 tsp table salt


  • In a small bowl, add buttermilk and heavy cream. Stir to combine ingredients.
  • Cover the bowl with a wrap or lid tightly. Let it stay for 12 to 24 hours in a warm spot.
  • After, add salt and lime juice. Mix until it is well combined.
  • Serve immediately. You can store leftovers in the fridge for a week.

Tips to Make Tamales

  • No matter what your chosen filling is, it’s always best that you make your own masa. This way, you can easily control the moisture content of your dough, an important step in making quality tamales. To do this, you only need corn flour and lard. You should have a slightly sticky dough to achieve the best masa.
  • If you choose a meaty filling for your tamales, always keep the meat’s drippings. Once your chicken, for example, is cooked, save the drippings and add it to your tamales. This way, you can prevent dry tamales or the need to add paste for a more flavorful taste.
  • How you wrap your tamales matters. Wrapping them correctly balances the flavors as well as makes for a less messy meal. Tip: use less masa to avoid overstuffing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of sauce do you serve with tamales?

Several options are available, depending on your personal tastes, if you’re looking for the best sauce to serve with tamales. Ranchero sauce, sour cream, and guacamole are the most common, but the sauce that best highlights tamales’ flavors is a red chili sauce. In fact, the traditional tamale sauce is made of red dried chilies, cumin, and garlic. These ingredients are roasted quickly in the oven, then soaked in the water. Afterward, the chilies and the water are blended with the other spices.

Are tamales the main dish?

A real tamale is wrapped in a dried corn husk or fresh banana leaf. Tamales are more like snacks for some people as they are more of an on-the-go-food, eaten with your hands. Tamales could serve as a great starter or appetizer before other, light main dishes are served. However, if the tamales are filled with a meat of some sort, it can be a heavy dish–more of what we would consider a main dish or entrée. So the final answer is: tamales can be either a main dish or a starter, depending on your preference.

How do you serve and eat tamales?

With the endless choices you can choose from, there is one key thing to remember: keep it simple. We know how we can get overwhelmed sometimes and get too adventurous in the kitchen, but it’s the simplest recipes that often work the best, especially since they’re made with love. In case you don’t know, by the way: when eating tamales, always discard the corn husk wrappings. These are not meant to be eaten at all.

Do tamales get you fat?

A typical tamale has 11.38 grams of fat and 285 calories, to be exact. Since traditional tamales are typically made of lard, these are noted to have increased saturated fat. If there is an increasing amount of saturated fat in your food, high cholesterol, weight gain, and heart disease are the possible risks. However, the count entirely depends on how much filling and masa you use. Therefore, it’s best to count calories and eat tamales moderately to avoid weight gain and other health issues.

What is traditionally served with tamales?

Traditionally, tamales are served with rice, beans, salads, or sometimes nothing at all, as they are deemed delicious on their own and eaten as a street food. However, if you wish to have a complete meal, tamales are best paired with side dishes that offer a great balance of flavors and textures. The best recommendations on what to serve with tamales include avocado salad, corn chowder, jicama slaw, and Mexican crema, to name a few.

What’s on the outside of tamales?

Tamales are wrapped using dried corn husks, which are soaked in the water to make them flexible, but are sometimes also wrapped in banana leaves. These wrappers are not eaten, but they do add certain flavors to tamales, especially during the steaming process. Tamales are usually steamed for at least 30 minutes. The total time actually depends on the size of the tamales, but they’re cooked until the masa is firm and the filling is hot.

Additional Resources

Image Credits from Flickr: rvacapinta; stu_spivack; Laurel Fan; TheDeliciousLife; AustinMatherne; Vegan Feast Catering; marcoverch; jspatchwork; wuestenigel; byzantiumbooks

Kitchen Professor author
About the Author: Rhonda Richardson, Editor

Rhonda grew up with parents who gardened, hunted, fished, canned, and preserved food. Her mother was a professional cook and Rhonda credits her teaching everything from how to make homemade biscuits and gravy to what kind of meals to serve for different occasions. In the kitchen, Rhonda uses a mix of old-fashioned country cooking and up-to-date fads in the kitchen, often experimenting with replacing higher-calorie or fat ingredients with healthier options that still retain the delicious flavors of the originals.

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