The Costa Rican Christmas Tamal

by Rocio Ballestero

For almost all Costa Rican families a Christmas season without tamales is just not complete. This delicious typical dish--prepared almost exclusively in December to eat during the year-end parties and celebrations--comes from a millennial tradition.

The base of a tamal is corn, or maize, a crop cultivated by the Meso-american Indians since pre-Columbian times. Corn has always been an essential element in their diet and it is used to prepare an endless number of tasty dishes, such as the well-known tortillas and atole, plus, even, alcoholic drinks like chicha.

It is also believed that tamales are a part of our ancestors' heritage. The truth is, all Costa Ricans will remember having eaten them since they were small children.

Making and cooking tamales is generally an activity which involves the participation of all family members. It is a slow, careful and laborious process. As some family members prepare the corn dough, others will be chopping and mincing additional ingredients and yet others will be preparing the plantain leaves and strings that will be used to wrap the tamales for boiling. Grandmothers and mothers will teach granddaughters and daughters how to make tamales; making sure the tradition is kept alive.

All through the month of December no Costa Rican home will be found without tamales. It might seem as if they don't get tired of eating them; some, even three or four times a day! They are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they are absolutely fundamental for coffee break time.

During the season, invitations to eat tamales at friends' and relatives' homes are common. Whoever does not make them can buy them ready to eat from commercial producers. The fact is, for Christmas, tamales cannot be missing from the kitchen!

The Ingredients

  • 2 pounds maize (corn flour)
  • 2 pounds pork
  • 2 pounds bacon
  • 2 cups cooked, seasoned rice *see note
  • ground chicharron (cracklings; fried pork skin)
  • several carrots
  • a few potatoes
  • sweet peppers
  • coriander
  • canned peas
  • salt, black pepper, cumin

The Preparation

Soak the flour in water and cook it with a little salt one day before making the tamales. Wash it thoroughly and change the water. Let it stand overnight. The next day, knead it into dough.

Boil the carrots, potatoes and meat in separate pots, seasoning with black pepper, cumin, coriander and salt.

Once this is done add the water from the meat you just cooked to the dough until you get an intermediate consistency. Also add some salt and the potatoes, previously mashed or pureed in a blender.

Wash the plantain leaves (you can substitute banana leaves). Cut them into 16 by 14 inch pieces. On each piece place two tablespoonfuls of dough. On top of the dough place a tablespoonful of rice, a piece of meat, some chicharron, a slice or two of carrots, some peas, coriander and a strip of sweet pepper. Fold the leaf into a rectangular shape, making sure no part of the tamal is exposed. Tie the bundle carefully and securely with string.

The rest is easy. Just place them in salted, boiling water for about one hour. Unwrap them so you can get to one of the most typical and delightful tastes of Costa Rica.

Try it and remember Costa Rica!

Note: Many variations exist on this basic recipe. Different kinds of meat can be substituted (shredded chicken breast and roast beef are two favorites), and the flavor of the corn dough can be enhanced greatly by adding a few minced onions, some crushed garlic and maybe even a little Tabasco sauce. In Costa Rica the basic "seasoned rice" is rice cooked with minced onion, diced sweet pepper, garlic, coriander and salt.


Read more about Costa Rica Christmas traditions