Costa Rican Tamales: A Christmas Tradition

Around the holidays, I am lonesome for my family.  I reeeeeeally miss the cooking and eating, drinking wine and doing dishes and just generally hanging out in the kitchen all day. Without my momma and sister and aunts, it’s no good. This past week I was lucky enough to be included in a group of 16 ladies that got together with our fearless, feisty leader, Marianela, to partake in a Costa Rican food tradition, making tamales. Picture your favorite aunt, the one who was close to your age, who laughed loud and sometimes swore and told the best stories. Okay, now you’ve got Marianela. Marianela is a Tica, who was willing to share her recipe and teach us. The rest of us were gringas, going along for the tamalada.

Marionela in the apron

I can remember the first time I had tamales. I was in college, and working a summer job on the assembly line making steering gears. One of the Mexican guys brought in hundreds of tamales, and by the end of lunch, they were sold out. I didn’t get a chance to buy any, but a friend was kind enough to share at lunch. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to eat the corn husk that it came in, but I watched everyone else unwrap theirs and avoided that humiliation. The taste was amazing, the flavors of corn and pork and onions and I-don’t know-what else melding together to create yum.

The tamalada (tamale-making party) is a production. Tamales are not easy, that’s why they’re usually reserved for holidays. It’s always lots of women working together, and I love the community and energy of that. Ladies talking, working, drinking, cooking… it made me miss my family a little bit less.Gorgeous ladies- ready to cook!


Marianela had cooked the meat beforehand and made three types of broth: mushroom for the vegetarians, a hearty chicken stock, and pork broth. Pork is the traditional one, and to make that she started with posta de cerda, or pork shoulder, cut it up and boiled it in water with onion, celery, bell pepper, herbs including basil, sage, garlic, salt, pepper, coyote cilantro, salsa lizano and achiote. Those last three I’ve never seen anywhere in the states, but the coyote cilantro is like cilantro without the soapy flavor. Lizano is on every table in costa Rica- it’s something like Worcestershire sauce and Ticos put it on beans and rice, pizza, french fries, eggs, everything. I’m honestly still not sure about achiote- I guess it’s used as a colorant and has a subtle flavor. The chicken was cooked with the same mixture except a whole chicken cut up instead of the pork, and the vegetable broth was just the veggies and herbs plus mushrooms for some depth of flavor.

Serious broth


The first thing we did was peel and boil potatoes. A mountain of potatoes. While the potatoes boiled ladies chopped root vegetables. These included yucca, tarot root, and tiquisque. The outsides are tough. We chopped them all to picadillo size (this means like hash for those of us not in the know). These are mixed together. We took the chicken off of the bones. Then we got the rest of the filling ready.  This consists of the meat, chickpeas, carrots, green beans, chickpeas, raisins, olives and red peppers.

Root vegetable medley goodness


When the potatoes were done they got mashed up and we were ready to assemble the corn dough. This is not the most precise science- it’s how your grandma taught you to cook: add this until it feels like that…

Having said that, we tried to measure as best we could, and here’s what we came up with:

Masa Rica + mashed potatoes + broth at about a 1:1:1 ratio (mas o menos)

Add fat:                                                                                                                                                                                                 For the veggie and chicken we added abooooout 1/2 C olive oil + 1/2 C vegetable oil 1 stick of soft butter.                                           For the pork, well, add blended chicharonnes/bacon grease + pork oil (which at the Costa Rican market is sometimes called mantequecade chancho) About the same amount, 1 1/2 C, I think, because remember, it’s the grandma method.

Add salt (because “Salt is life!” says Marianela. “Salt is to food what Pura Vida is to Costarricense.”  Abooooouut 4 TBL.                      We used pink Himalayan sea salt

Masa Rica

Work the dough with your hands. Knead it for a while because it takes some time for the corn to rehydrate. At this point the dough is the consistency of thick oatmeal- between cake batter and cookie dough, and tastes like the most delicious frito you’ve ever had.

While that production was happening we started getting the banana leaves ready. In Costa Rica  corn husks aren’t used, banana leaves are. Banana leaves are huge, around six feet long. Marionela had prepared them: to soften them, you run them over a fire.  We wiped them down with a clean cloth and cut them down both sides of the main stem into roughly  8″ X 8″  size. We made about 70.

Big ass leaves

Then, we were ready to put everything together. You place about 3/4 cup of the dough, not too much, directly onto the banana leaf. If you put too much on, it will squash out when you’re folding it up. The next step is to add the veggies. Don’t get crazy and overdo it. For example: a couple pieces of the meat, two spoonfuls of the root mixture, one carrot, one pepper, three raisins, one olive, a couple chickpeas, a few green beans.

You can decide what you think would be yummy for filling, some people add black beans, and in the states you might add sweet potatoes instead of the root mixture. But this mixture was pure magic. If you can use it, I would.

The next part I found a little tricky, wrapping them up. You take up two sides together and roll them down, then fold the two opposite sides over, wrapped up tighter than a drum. The last thing you want is for them to come apart when you’re boiling them.  Make two, then marry them together, bottom to bottom. Tie them with kitchen string, nice and tight, like a present, with a bow on top.

such pretty little packages

To cook, boil water with LOTS of salt. Place the tamales in the boiling water and cook for about 45 minutes. We boiled ours over an open fire because there were so many. It was awesome. To top it off, while they boiled to perfection, we got to watch this sunset. Thanks Colleen, for letting us share your house and views 🙂

Tamales cooking on an open fire…but no jack frost nipping at your nose. Those are banana leave on top as a lid.

Remove with a slotted spoon and let sit to cool. Everyone unwraps their own banana leaf. And voila: Costa Rican Christmas magic. Family and friends, amazing food and drink. Now that you know how, throw your own tamalada. Please invite me though…my family has already gobbled ours all up.

My food photography needs work