Totomoxtle (and the Tamal)

Hoja para tamales (leaves for tamales)

One of the most interesting things (well to me anyway) when learning about something is the language used. I really enjoy looking into the etymology of the origin of a word. Mexico is very interesting as you already know several words of Nahuatl origin, perhaps even without being aware of it. Words like chocolate, tomato and avocado all have origins in Mesoamerica.

It was the herb named papaloquelite that drew me consciously down this path. Today however I wish to explore (vaguely) the tamal and the leaf used to wrap it.

The word tamal itself is often argued over as tamale is also commonly used. The biggest deal seems to revolve around the fact that “tamal” is singular and that “tamale” is plural. i.e. “un tamal por favor” or “dos tamales por favor”. Meh. No big deal really as (technically) the word is said to have evolved from the Nahuatl “tamalli” which is singular and, according to the Nahuatl dictionary I regularly use (1) translates to…….



Principal English Translation:

a tamale, a type of bread-like steamed cornmeal

pan de maíz envuelto en hojas y cocido en olla (cornbread wrapped in leaves and cooked in a pot)

Tamalito Rick is un pequeño tamal de fresa (a small strawberry tamal)

At its most basic a tamal is a dough made from ground nixtamalised corn which has been wrapped in a leaf and then is cooked by steaming. They can be plain or filled, sweet or savoury and there are scores of regional variations in the leaves used to wrap them and the manner in which they are wrapped.

Corundas Carmelita gives us some nice options (and an atole to wash it all down)

…and you’ll find more options at the Feria (well not these ferias as you’ve missed some of them by a couple of years now. Check it out though, they run every year and everywhere has there own fiestas)

The ferias exist on both sides of the porous culinary borders of the Northern States of Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

Listening to Chingo got me reminiscing about some of the tamales I have encountered along the way

Dia de muertos. The Friends of Mexico society erected an ofrenda at a local University as part of Dia de muertos celebrations. One of the FOMEX ladies also bought tamales. I had the chicken with salsa roja (I missed the pork and salsa verde and the fresa tamales)
Chicken and sweetcorn tamales at Tizoc Taqueria. This tamal is different in that it was made with masa colada or “strained masa”. The masa was blended with fresh sweet corn and then strained through a fine meshed sieve to produce a smooth (and quite sweet) masa with a very different texture to the tamal shown above.
A Salvadoran tamal and pupusa. For years I have followed a group of El Salvadoran ladies who have a stall at various local markets. These tamales were my only option in my hometown for a long time. The tamales were a lot wetter than my experience with Mexican tamales. Each tamale contained a strip of shredded chicken, a few cubes of potato and a whole (seedless of course) green olive. They were steamed in a hoja de platano (banana leaf) instead of a corn husk and were reheated on the BBQ.

Great. Now I’m hungry.

Rather that the tamal itself today we look at the leaf used to wrap it. In this case not actually a leaf but rather the outside “leaves” covering the corn cob commonly called a corn “husk” which according to most dictionary definitions comes out as “a usually dry or membranous outer covering (such as a pod or one composed of bracts) of various seeds and fruits (such as barley and corn)” and can also be termed a hull or shell. I am fully aware that other leaves, primarily the hoja de platano (banana leaves) are also used to wrap the tamal but that is a conversation for another day (actually I think I’ll drop in a small list at the end of the Post, but I won’t go into much detail here today)

Your hojas as you might find them in the mercado.
Image via HOJA PARA Tamales Xalapa on Facebook

How you are more likely to find them where I live

New word. Enconcahda? back to the dictionary. Ooo look Wiki has an entry.




enconchada f sg

  1. feminine singular of enconchado




enconchado (feminine enconchadamasculine plural enconchadosfeminine plural enconchadas)

  1. past participle of enconcharse




From en- +‎ concha (“shell”) +‎ -ar.


enconcharse (first-person singular present me enconchofirst-person singular preterite me enconchépast participle enconchado)

  1. (reflexive) to curl up

Phew. Took a while to get there but OK, “to curl up”. Makes sense, we are wrapping tamales after all.

Curled up. Like a conch shell?
Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

The Oxford Spanish Dictionary is a liitle different….

Translations for enconchada in the Spanish»English Dictionary

I. enconchar VBtransVeninf

enconchar : to hide

II. enconcharse VBvpr

1. enconcharse inf(ensimismarse):

enconcharse Col Mex : to withdraw into one’s shell

2. enconcharse Veninf(esconderse):

enconcharse : to go into hiding

“To hide”. I like the imagery of that (and the fact that to me it indicates a surprise or some treasure at the end). Spanish is quite a poetic language and, according to Antonio Banderas……(yes, I know he’s not Mexican)…..,

Lets investigate the Nahuatl roots of this word which involves a plant that lies at the very soul of the Mexican.

Aside from just looking at the word we will also look at preparing these hojas ourselves from the maiz we grow in our gardens.

La cuinique@FabiolaCatalan on YouTube (and Facebook)(1) shows us how to harvest and prepare totomoxtle (hojas para tamales) the dried corn husks used to wrap tamales before steaming them.

Photo by melissa mayes

The corn being used has been left on the stalk to dry in the field (milpa). There is a particular way of doing this so that the corn does not rot. Note how the cob has been bent on its stem so it faces the ground. This helps prevent water from gathering in the cob and causing it to go mouldy and rot.

La cuinique then taught me a new Nahuatl term

Molquite. Name given to the small, defective or rotten ear (of corn/maize), the “mazorca pequeña”(1)


According to the Real Academia Española “It is the name given to a very small and defective cob (deformed). Small and few grain cobs.” (1)


They elaborate by saying…

From Nahuatl mulquitl ‘redrojo de mies’.

m. El Salv. Mazorca pequeña de maíz mal cosechado. (m. El Salv. Small cob of poorly harvested corn)(1).


The first word I stumbled over was “cosechado” (and mal cosechado no less)

According to various translations this word means reaped (1), cropped (2). So, in essence, “harvested” as in “cosechado a mano” hand-picked {vb} (fruit)(3)


A dictionary of the Pipil Language of El Salvador (Campbell 1985) notes the word as “mulki:-t mulquite (mazorca chiquita, no crecida) : small, not fully grown ear of corn : muhmulkixt (pl.)” which refers less to the manner of how the maiz was harvested (see below) and that the corn cob itself had not properly developed by harvest time.

Now we go back to the Nahuatl roots of the word.

According to my Nahuatl dictionaries…..

mulquitl. – Alonso de Molina : mulquitl. redrojo de miesses.(1)


To elaborate……

Paleography: Mulquitl
Standardized spelling: molquitl
Translation one: redrojo de miesses.
Translation two: redrojo of harvests. (1)


OK then. Redrojo? Que es red-red?

I. 1. m. Mx. Persona o cosa muy deteriorada o muy despreciable. pop + cult → espon ^ desp.
YO. one. m. Max. Person or thing very deteriorated or very despicable. pop + cult → espon ^ desp. (1)


The key word here is “runt” which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary = an animal unusually small of its kind. especially : the smallest of a litter of pigs. : . usually disparaging : a person of small stature.

Another definition went this way “m. Gu, Ho, ES. Mazorca pequeña de maíz que no se ha desarrollado. rur.” (Small ear of corn that has not “desarrollado” – developed.) (1)


My Diccionario de Aztequismos (Robelo 1904) breaks it down a little differently.

Molquite……(Molquitl o Mulquitl) : redrojo de mieses. Mazorquita de maiz con los granos escasos, o pdridos, o secos antes de que cuarajan.

  • Molquite……(Molquitl or Mulquitl) : redrojo (1) of crops. Little ear of corn with the grains scarce, or rotten, or dry before they set.
  1. ah my old friend redrojo (the runt). Hann (1986) notes of redrojo or puny ears that is the third (and lowest) grade of corn.

I made a glaring spelling error when checking Google Translate (pdridos instead of podridos)(1)

  1. From “podrido” rotted, putrid, decayed, putrefied – From Spanish pudrir, from Latin putrere (whence English putrid). Piecewise doublet of pútrido.

Molquite……(Molquitl o Mulquitl) : redrojo de mieses. Mazorquita de maiz con los granos escasos, o podridos, o secos antes de que cuarajan.

Correcting the spelling error changed the translation somewhat…..(and introduced me to a new word – cuarajan)

Molquite……(Molquitl or Mulquitl) : redrojo of crops. Little ear of corn with the grains scarce (escasos), or rotten, or dry before they curdle (cuarajan). This spelling change altered the meaning (slightly) of cuajaran from “set” to “curdle” (which are related words I guess)

The word cuajaran caused me a little consternation. I could not readily find it. The most common option was cuajaron which generally translated to curdled/congealed. Both words seemed to derive from  cuajar……

Lat Am Spain

Full verb table TRANSITIVE VERB

[leche](milk) to curdle

[gelatina](gelatine) to set

[sangre](blood) to coagulate ⧫ clot

[grasa](fat/grease) to congeal

Now I am certainly no expert on the maturation of the corn kernel. I am aware that each thread of “silk” that protrudes from the end of the maturing cob is attached to one single kernel but as for the internal maturation of that individual kernel I have little knowledge. Research however tells me that the R3 and R4 stages of maturation (1) are when the kernels are filling and maturing. To quote the Andersons of Canada….. R3 & R4: Milk and dough stages
The kernels are now well into a period of rapid starch accumulation which results from sugars made from photosynthesis in the leaves being shipped down to the kernel where they are converted into starch. Cell division within the kernel (endosperm) is mostly complete (the embryo or immature corn plant is still growing). Growth of the kernel at this point is mostly due to cell expansion and filling of the cells with starch. The purpose of starch in the endosperm is to provide an energy source for the germinating seedling, however, it also makes a good source of starch for many other purposes. Final yield depends on number of kernels that develop AND the final size and weight of the kernel.

  1. R3 Milk stage – occurs 10 – 14 days after silking and R4 Dough stage – occurs 24 – 28 days after silking.

So it appears that these molquite cobs are underdeveloped because the flow of the milky liquid into the kernels has been interrupted (for whatever reason – and there are a few) before it can cuarajan (“curdle” and “set”) into the starch of a mature kernel.

Ohio State University provides excellent information on the various types of development issues that might be faced when growing maize.

So, to boil it down , the “runt” of the litter. The small, imperfect and underdeveloped cobs of the harvest.

In this case the word used to describe the corn cob is “mazorca” pequeña (literally corncob – small).

According to Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, mazorca = the dried cob of corn. The fresh cob is known as “elote”

Son lo mismo, pero uno es fresco y el otro maduro y seco. Cuando el maíz es cortado en fresco se le conoce como elote, que es cuando los comemos hervidos o en esquites. Cuando se deja madurar el grano, se le llama mazorca de maíz. Este grano maduro y seco es el que usamos para elaborar las tortillas o tamales.
They are the same, but one is fresh and the other is ripe and dry. When the corn is cut fresh it is known as elote, which is when we eat it boiled or in esquites. When the grain is allowed to mature, it is called an ear of corn (mazorca de maíz). This ripe and dry grain is what we use to make tortillas or tamales. (1)

For reference sake….Esquites

Mazorca from Hispanic Arabic masúrqa ( masura, “huso, spindle)(1)

  1. ttps://
Spindle = Object used to spin . It is usually a long, rounded piece of wood , tapering at its ends. The spun thread winds around it while it is rotated supported on one of its ends. (1)

Quite descriptive of the shape of a cob I guess.

The totomoxtle can also be burned to a culinary ash.

See also my Post Medicinal Ash.

Cenizas de Maíz, maíz azúl martajado & una mezcla de chiles.
Corn ashes, martajado blue corn & a mix of chilies.
(We’ll look at martajado in a minute)

Made with maiz criollo (1) from San Antonio de la Cal (2) and sea salt/s from Juchitán (3) and Salina Cruz (4)

  1. In Mexico , indigenous varieties that have been developed in a “traditional” way are called maíz criollo or maíz nativo “native corn”
  2. San Antonio de la Cal is a town and municipality in Oaxaca in south-western Mexico. It is part of the Centro District in the Valles Centrales region.
  3. Juchitán, in full Juchitán de Zaragoza, city, southeastern Oaxaca estado (state), southern Mexico. It is on the Juchitán River (or De los Perros River), near the southern coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec
  4. Salina Cruz is a major seaport on the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca

Martajado = “pounded”

martajar : TRANSITIVE VERB (general) (Mexico) : to pound; i.e. Tueste las semillas y martájelas antes de utilizarlas. “Roast the seeds and then pound them before using them”.

Back to the hojas.

‘The processing of these hojas is fairly straight forward.

The first way of removing the cobs demonstrated was probably the fastest way. Grab your screwdriver and (carefully) penetrate the totomoxtle near the base of the cob and run your screwdriver from the base to the apex of the cob cutting the leaves as you go. The cob can then be snapped out (and added to the growing pile). If you look at the totomoxtle in this series of images (above) you’ll note that the leaves are mottled and mouldy looking. The leaves shown below are the ones you’d use to make tamales. Nice and clean.

You can speed up the process by cutting the leaves at the base of the cob. Run your (very sharp) knife around the base of the cob cutting through to the stem.

Then just peel off your hojas.

For easy removal. The totomoxtle leaves, can be sprayed with a little water so they are not so brittle

How to stack your totomoxle for storage

They should be stored in a cool, dry place until you need them. They can be stored for a year or so without any loss in quality (so long as you can keep the moisture/insects/mice away from them)

You can also do this with fresh corn. The leaves might then be called “hojas de elote”. These can be used fresh as tamale wrappers (and are used for the Michoacan based tamal called an uchepo.

Save your corn silk (if they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides) and dry them. Corn silk can be used medicinally. It is a mild diuretic and has an affinity for the urinary system. It can be used to help alleviate symptoms of urinary tract infections, bladder infections, general oedema (fluid accumulation) and prostate problems (especially if they are affecting urination). Corn silk is a very safe herbal medicine (usually taken as an infusion or tea).

To use dried corn husks, they need to be soaked in warm water to make them pliable, this will prevent them from cracking or tearing when folding your tamales. Soaking times can vary from 10 to 30 minutes to overnight. Soaking them for 10 minutes in freshly boiled water should do it if you’re in a hurry but a good 30 minutes in warm water is my go to.

A common piece of advice is that if you have soaked your husks but not used them then you can dry them and put them back into storage. I have never done this but it makes sense that you can. If you do then make sure they are absolutely dry before storing them as they will go mouldy very easily. I would also not recommend reusing these leaves once they have been used to cook something.

To make your tamal. Take your soaked hoja de tamal, spread a layer of masa on it and add your filling (if using one). Then enconchado like an abuela.

Repeat this 500 more times. Tamales are not made in isolation.


If you are a competent kitchen witch (or wizard, as the case may be) you might even try tying up your tamales with a strip of rehydrated hoja. This will hold your tamal together somewhat but if you stack them well in the steamer then you really don’t need to do this. Check out the fully loaded steamer below.

How you might encounter tamales in the calle.

A brief look at other hojas used to wrap tamales. Many of these leaves are edible in their own right and more than a few have medicinal usage.

Hoja de milpa. These are the leaves which grow from the stem of the corn plant.

Hojas de elote are the fresh leaves from a corn cob.
The dried leaves are totomoxtle and might also be called hojas de maiz seco

Hojas de platano are the leaves from the banana tree (well it’s technically a herb and not a tree but that makes no difference for what we are doing). These (banana trees) are hellishly easy to grow if you want a supply of fresh tamale wrappers. I can readily find these (both frozen and fresh) at my local Asian grocers. Asian cuisines use the leaf exactly as Mesoamericans do.

Hoja de carrizo.

Hoja de carrizo : There are several potentials for this one and the plant being referred to might be Phragmites communis or Arundo donax (most likely the donax) but could also be referring to a bamboo species. It is most often described as a “giant reed”

Chaya. A leafy shrub from Yucatan that is used in a manner similar to spinach. See my Post Chaya for further info on this plant.

Hoja santa. Holy leaf (also called acuyo) has an anise like flavour and is a relative of the betel leaf common in Asian cuisines.

Hoja de papatla : Canna indica is native to South America: Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina as well as the West Indies and Central America. It is highly nutritious and has an easily digestible starch in its rhizomes (Kalu etal 2016). It is considered to be a naturalised weed in parts of Australia. This plant also has medicinal uses. In Veracruz this leaf might also be called platanillo.

Hoja de tó (also called hoja de pozol, hoja blanca, hoja de chombo, hoja de pozole (Oaxaca, Tabasco) hoja de sal, pampano) from the plant Calathea lutea. The leaves are too tough to be edible but they do make excellent food wrappers.

hoja de bexo – Renealmia Alpinia

Also called guaxmole (Renealmia alpinia, Oaxaca); güirimul (Renealmia alpinia, Chiapas); hoja de cherimole (Renealmia alpinia, Oaxaca); hoja de huasmole u hoja de huaxmole/huasmole/huaxmole (Renealmia alpinia, Oaxaca); ixquihit (Renealmia alpinia, sierra Norte de Puebla). Renealmia mexicana is a leaf similar in appearance to that of the banana.

Researching these hojas has also opened avenues of investigation into several leaves which have medicinal utility.

Keep tuned


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1985). The Pipil Language of El Salvador. 10.1515/9783110881998.
  • Hann, J. H. (1986). THE USE AND PROCESSING OF PLANTS BY INDIANS OF SPANISH FLORIDA. Southeastern Archaeology, 5(2), 91–102.
  • Kalu, Okonwu & Ariaga, C.A.. (2016). Nutritional Evaluation of Various Parts of Canna indica L.. Annual Research & Review in Biology. 11. 1-5. 10.9734/ARRB/2016/31029.
  • Robelo, Cecilio Agustin. (1904) Diccionario de Aztequismos. Internet Archive diccionariodeazt00robeuoft
  • Simeon, Remi. (1991) DICCIONARIO DE LA LENGUA NAHUATL O MEXICANA. Siglo Veintiuno XX1, 1991. (MEX) 8th edition. ISBN 10968230573X



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