Back when I was a teacher here, my Chilean students always asked me how to say the name of certain local dishes. The truth is, if they don’t exist in the US, it’s unlikely we have an exact name for them, things being mainly called by their ingredients, where pastel de choclo becomes “corn pie,” which is pretty thorougly inaccurate. But when they asked me how to say “humitas” I had an answer. Sort of.
“Tamales,” I responded.
While a) this is not English and b) it is not technically exactly the same, to my knowlege there is no English word for a soft corn dough steamed in a leaf, to be later untied and eaten. And although I told them the word we use is tamales, I have never once referred to an humita (oo-MEET-a), even when speaking English, as a tamale. Humitas are a mixture of ground/grated fresh corn (unlike tamales, which are usually based on a corn flour), sometimes lard (vegetarians beware) and basil, cooked on the stovetop and then scooped into corn husks and tied together, often scrunched up in the middle, so much so that bow ties the clothing) are called humitas in Chile as well. These are then steamed until they’re ready to be eaten.
They may vary in size from a deck of cards to several times that, and at this time of year, it’s pretty common to see signs pop up from all manner of minimarket and other small shop, saying “Hay Humitas” (we’ve got humitas). They’re easily heated in the microwave, and eaten with a fork and often a Chilean salad (tomatoes and onions) on the side. Some people sprinkle sugar on humitas before eating them.
You can try them from a minimarket, from a señora that brings them by your office, from your mother or mother-in-law if you’re lucky, at a traditional Chilean restaurant, or even from the supermarket, where they’re sold frozen. Like many seasonal Chilean specialties, when the raw ingredients (in this case, corn and basil) dries up on the vine/stalk/in the field, there won’t be any more until next year. So get them while they’re hot.
Or don’t. But at least you’ll know what to call them. oo-MEET-as.