Latin America has hundreds of variations of dumplings cooked in natural husks, leaves and bark. Columbian and Salvadorean tamales are complete meals wrapped and cooked in banana leaves: Columbian tamales are banana leaves packed with chicken thighs, sparerib, potato chunks and carrots, while Salvadorean tamales de gallina are made of olives, garbanzos and meat wrapped in plantain leaves. Chilean humitas are light, made with fresh corn and basil, while Nicaraguan nacatamales are fat, square and held together with twine.
The Mexican tamal ranges from humble comfort food to the luxe ingredients of nueva cocina Mexicana. Tamales are local food, and wrappings and fillings change with the geography. Mexico boasts somewhere between 500 to 1,000 different varieties, including tamales for special holy days and festivals. There are Mexican tamales wrapped in banana and plantain leaves, corn husks, chard leaves, leaves from the bird of paradise plant and an anise-scented herb called hoja santa. These varieties range from the classic handheld variety all the way up to an Oaxacan zacahuil, designed to feed entire villages.
Nearly every culture has its own variations of leaf-wrapped food. Lotus leaves impart a floral smokiness to Chinese fried rice. Sweet and savory treasures are tucked with Thai glutinous rice into banana leaves. Mediterraneans use regional ingredients and foliage (usually grape leaves) to construct richly flavorful dolmas, and hearty Hungarian káposzta (stuffed cabbage) will drive away winter's chill.