Costa Rican Christmas Tradition: Making Tamales.
I was invited to join my friends in the family affair of making and eating this authentic holiday food. It’s an all day labor intensive process that is as much a social event as it is a cooking experience. Children watch and learn, knowing someday it will be up to them to carry on the tradition. We spent the day laughing, sharing stories, and bonding as so many generations have done before us.
Here’s a little history of the tamale… The tamale can be traced backed to 500 B.C. They served as nutritious and portable food for the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. When the Spaniards came to the new world, they became fans of the tamale and took the ideas and recipes back to Spain. Today Tamales are found throughout Mexico , Central America, and South America., with each region having its own special ingredients and style.
First, the fillings are prepared. Cooked potato and carrots, raw onion, sweet peppers, and green beans, partially cooked yellow rice, and a pot of chicken. The chicken was cooked in a soup and then later separated from the broth (in the pitcher below).
The broth is put in the blender with cilantro, garlic, onion, and peppers to make sofrito, which will be strained into the corn flour to add flavor to the masa (dough).
The masa is a mix of corn flour, sofrito, a LOT of chicken seasoning, pork fat saved from making chicharrones, salt, pepper, and water to achieve the right consistency. There is no measuring of anything, and each time it’s seasoned we all dipped our fingers in to see if it’s just right. After about 4 or 5 rounds of taste testing, it was ready to go on the stove to thicken. With the burner set on low, the masa was stirred slowly for about five minutes until the texture was perfect. Then we hauled all of the food outside to set up our assembly station.
Banana leaves are cut to size, one small and one large for each tamale. String is also cut to a perfect length for tying them up after.
We made two different kind of tamales, masa and rice. The masa tamales were topped with a little of each of the fillings, including a bit of rice. The rice tamales had none of the corn in them, just rice and the fillings.
In Puerto Rico we call them pasteles, and while they’re seasoned a little differently and we use a different base for the masa, they’re quite similar in taste because of the added flavor of the banana leaves. It felt wonderful to enjoy a little piece of home even though I’m so far away.
Once filled and folded into neat little pockets, the tamales are tied together in pairs. We made 4 masa, then 4 rice, 4 masa, then 4 rice, so we could keep track of which was which later on.
We’re all done when the masa and rice are gone. Then, we fight each other for whatever veggies are left. ;)
Once the tamales were set to boil, we all had a well deserved cafecito (cup of coffee) and then took a dip in the ocean to cool off. A sweet way to spend a December day, I think.
And just like home, the men sit around asking every five minutes if the food is done. They’ve been smelling it cook since morning and their patience is all but gone. Dinner is finally served.
Everything about the day reminded me of when I was little and my family gathered in much the same way to cook our traditional holiday meals. I’m so grateful for our friends here, and how they treat us like we’re family.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
Feliz Navidad! PURA VIDA!!!