Tamales are traditional Costa Rican cuisine. While the ingredients are simple, they are time consuming to make. They remind me of my Ukrainian family making perogies, women working together in an assembly line to make hundreds for a special event or holiday. Last Friday we were invited to join a Tico family to make tamales and, while it was great to learn how to make this local staple, the best part was that feeling of community. A kitchen full of people talking, laughing and working together.
I have seen recipes for tamales online and in books, but learning from a matriarch is different. Family recipes are passed down in approximations. So while you may find a better recipe on another website, this is meant to tell you a story, not give you measurements.
Consider yourself warned!
Basic ingredients, which I have not included any amounts for as it appears to be fairly arbitrary:
Chunks of meat, usually pork
Garlic, salt, pepper, bullion
First, cook the rice and meat. Our host had already cooked the rice with spices, carrots and green beans. The pork was cut into chunks, browned and then boiled for a few hours. The resulting broth is basically what gives the tamales their flavor, so you want to make sure that it is full of garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper.
The next step is to make the ‘masa’, the corn flour based dough. Start by finding the largest bowl you can, then dump in a 5lb bag of corn flour (each bag this size should apparently make about 70-75 tamales). Combine with your broth (you can use water too if you don’t have enough) until it resembles a thin gooey soup. I have no measurements for this. Whenever I asked ‘how much?’ or ‘how long?’ the response was always, ‘until it looks right’ or ‘until it’s done’. Which is exactly how I cook, but makes it difficult to write about! Forget using a spoon; get your hands in to mix it so that you can easily get rid of any lumps. Taste it, and add more salt or bullion if needed. Add butter, about ½ cup for each bag of flour. Apparently it is more traditional to use pork lard, but butter tastes better and is a little healthier.
This mixture gets cooked on the stove for about 30 minutes until it begins to thicken, stirring often to keep lumps from forming. You then add cornstarch mixed with water and keep stirring until it has the consistency of cake batter. We were doing this outside in a huge drum over a woodfire. There is no control over the temperature or anything, but I would guess you would keep it on a medium heat on your stove. Remove from heat.
While you are waiting for your masa to cool enough to be handled, you can prep your other ingredients. Cut sprigs of cilantro and slivers of red peppers, enough to add one of each to each tamale. Cut clean pieces of banana leaves, each about 15” square. You can buy these at the local market around the holidays in Costa Rica already prepped and ready to go, or you can do it yourself. At our friend’s home, they were slicing leaves off the banana trees with a machete, then passing them over the fire a few times to soften and disinfect them. We then cleaned them with damp clothes and cut them to the appropriate size. The banana leaves are an important part of the whole process. Not only is it traditional, the fire-touched leaves impart flavor to the food and are part of the distinctive taste. Plus, it’s fun.
OK, so now you are ready to assemble the tamales. Place two layers of the banana leaf on the table (doubled up for strength), add a pancake-sized puddle of masa in the center, add a heaping tablespoon of your rice/veggie mix, a chunk of meat, a sprig of cilantro and a piece of pepper. Gather the corners on a diagonal, and fold over, then continue to fold down until you hit the filling. Fold one end in, pushing the mixture towards the center as you do so, and follow with the other side, always moving the filling towards the middle.
When you have two, tie them together with string so the bottoms (the part with all the ends of banana leaf) are together with the smooth sides facing out. They are always wrapped in a duo like this and it is called a piña (which literally means “pineapple” in Spanish. I have no clue why it is called this, and no-one can tell me!). Once you have all your piñas together, add them to a pot of boiling water and boil for 45 minutes. This causes the mixture to firm up and cook together. Remove them from heat and add to cool water to set.
Once these have cooled, they are ready to enjoy. Our hosts dislike anything too spicy, but we love ours with hot sauce. On Friday, we were at our friends’ place for about 5 hours, during which time we made over 280 tamales! We took about a dozen home with us, but most will be consumed by the huge amount of family expected at their home over the holidays.
They are seriously good picnic-food as they come with their own banana leaf plate that is then burnable or biodegradable and don’t really require any cutlery. We ate ours on the beach the following day with hot sauce and beer.
And there you have it, a glimpse of Costa Rican culture and a taste of something unique. Enjoy!