Thursday, January 17, 2013

Making Tamales

Ok.  Now that we have a computer that is in working order, I can take some times and tell you about making tamales.

First off, I am not sure what you think of when you hear the word "tamale" but when talking about Costa Rican tamales, they are different than Mexican ones.  Here's a good example of the Costa Rican variety.

We bought these at church one Sunday.  A missions team was going to spend Christmas with an indigenous tribe in the southern part of Costa Rican and they were selling tamales to raise money. 

Tamales here are a twice a year thing.  Christmas and Semana Santa (Holy Week).  The Christmas ones have pork or chicken and the Semana Santa ones are just veggie because it's Lent. 

I really wanted to learn how to make these as it seemed like a great freezer meal option.  Just pull them out, heat them up and you got lunch.  So I asked our landlady if she could teach me sometime after Christmas.  To which she responded "yes, but before Christmas!!"  But then the trip to Panama happened and her family had things going on, so it did get put off until after Christmas.  For them it was strange, because tamales are the traditional Buena Noche (Good Night, or Christmas Eve) food. 

So two days after Christmas Milena brought over the stuff to make tamales.  I was naive.  I thought it might take two or three hours.  Ha!  Was I wrong. 

First we got the meat started.  There was posta de cerdo, which is some part of pork.  Roast maybe?  I haven't found a good translation for it yet.  To that we added skin, bone and we were suppose to add lard, but no place had any left two days AFTER Christmas.  There was also salt, pepper, celery, onion, Lizano (a sauce Costa Ricans add to almost anything), complete seasoning (which has all the spices and some bouillon in it), garlic paste, cilantro and chile dulce (por supesto!  Of course!)  and camomile(to help with the digestion Milena said.)  We let that cook in a huge pot on the stove for a couple of hours.  Gosh, that was a hard sentence to write in English.  I find that if I learn a recipe in Spanish, I can only talk about the ingredients in Spanish.  Language and the brain are weird things.

While the pork was cooking, I looked out and saw Milena's dad making a fire in my driveway.  And then I began to realize this wasn't just going to be an hour or two. 

A few minutes later I looked out and saw this.

Noah and Milena's mom were working on cleaning the banana leaves and cutting them down to the size needed for the tamales.  As they were doing that, Milena's sons were gathering firewood for the day.  Tamales really is a whole family affair.  Everyone comes over and works together.  The women work on cooking, the men on the fire, the kids can help with cleaning the leaves and staying out of the way.  We were told it's a time of unifying the family.  Everyone is together, working, and the stories start to be told, and it is all about the family.  I love it!  I feel like Milena and her family really let us in that day, to be part of such a family event.

Then there was the cutting and cooking of the vegetables to put in the tamales.  We used green beans, peas, carrots and chile dulces or red sweet peppers.  That part didn't take too long in comparison to the masa.

The masa.  Wow.  This is the corn meal that makes up the bulk of the tamale.  And what a process!  Milena bought the base masa in town and then we seasoned it accordingly.  There was more salt and pepper added as well as more Lizano.  Then we added the cooking water from the pork to it.  To blend it all together, we first had to run a batch through a sieve to make sure there weren't big chunks of corn still in the masa.  After one test batch, Milena decided that this was high quality masa and we didn't need to run the rest of the masa for 100 tamales through he sieve by hand.  Good. 

But lest you think that made the masa a quick step, read on.  To mix the masa with the cooking water required two people, a very large spoon, and an hour.  The goal was to make it as smooth as possible.  One person held the pot errr, caldron and the other beat the masa.  Como eso (like this)

This is one of Milena's sons, Christian and his grandmother.  We all took turns beating the masa.  At one point we put it over the fire to heat it up some.  And there was some discussion about the fact that it needed more fat (which was part of what the lard was for, so we used butter instead).  While we were beating it over the fire, the smoke was terrible and kept getting in my eyes making me cry.  At one point I said, "La gringa no puede hacerlo"  (The white woman can't do it!) and Milena said, "Ni la Tica!"  (Or the Costa Rican!)

We beat and beat and beat that masa.  And finally, it was deemed smooth enough.  Then the assembly line started.

We laid out banana leaves all around the table and each one of us put something on to them.  First was the masa, then the rice, pork, and veggies.

Oh so good!  After it's all assembled, we wrapped the banana leaves around it and put them together with another.  A pair of tamales is called a piña, 

After they were all wrapped, we tied them together with their twin, como eso

Christian and Carlos, Milena's sons, helped with this part too.  It so reminded me of canning. You know, when you first learn how tight to put the lids on before putting them in the water bath.   They kept tying and asking, "¿Mami, esta bien?" (Mommy, is this good?) 

Next it was time to cook the tamales.  Christian and Carlos put banana leaves in the pot over the fire before we added the 100 tamales we had just made.  As a lid, more banana leaves were put on top.  And then we let it cook for an hour or so. 

It was dark by the time we pulled them out of the pot.  Much like a day of canning.  The difference was at the end of a canning day, you still have to make dinner.  At the end of a tamale day, you have leftover rice with pork and veggies to eat.  No more cooking required.  Everyone kept asking me if I was tired from all the work, to which I said "yes, but it's normal right?  It's like canning."

We split the 100 tamales and now my freezer is full of them.  We will be eating them a lot on Sundays because it's an easy meal.

What a sweet day full of culture, Spanish, food and family.  ¡A mi me gusta los días de los tamales!  I like days of tamales!


  1. Yum, salsa Lizano!! These sound delicious and a little like the Venezuelan tamales that are called Hallacas...great, now I am hungry! Great post Liz!

  2. making tamales is on my list of one of those things i've gotta try... some day!

  3. I really love the way you writte =D, the pictures, everything looks so natural


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