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Christmas Tamales in Costa Rica

Everyone has different traditions and favorite things that they do for the Christmas holiday. Costa Rica is no exception.

A Favorite Costa Rica Christmas Tradition

When you run into a friend during the Christmas holiday, it is common to ask them what they are doing for the holidays and what their family traditions are.  This is because everyone has different traditions and favorite things that they do for the Christmas holiday.  Costa Rica is no exception.

We asked our team what their favorite holiday tradition was, and hands down it was making tamales on Christmas Eve.  Creating this holiday meal is a different process than maybe you are used to – they aren’t like the Mexican Tamales of the rolled corn husk variety you might find at your local grocery store or sold from street vendors.  But though they may be different, Costa Rican tamales are delicious!

Tamales aren’t really common throughout Costa Rica at other times of the year.  They are sometimes found in a restaurant, but not in every restaurant and of course – they don’t taste as good as the homemade tamales with your family on Christmas Eve!  So if you want to truly experience Costa Rican tamales, you might just have to come down for Christmas (or give our recipe at the end a try). 

But on Christmas Eve the tamales are plentiful and a way of bringing families together and strengthening relationships over delicious food.  Making tamales is a noisy affair with laughter and teasing, storytelling and remembering.  There is often music and small children running around and playing.

Rather than using corn husks to wrap the tamale, they use plantain or banana leaves.  Before Christmas Eve arrives each family has to buy the leaves from a farmer, who cleans them up and prepares them for the holiday.  The leaves will have sap from the tree on them and all that sticky sap needs to be cleaned off before you use them to make your tamales.  

These leaves have to be ordered in advance from the farmer or they might run out – and then your family will be out of luck.  

The work on Christmas Eve begins really early in the morning.  Tamale making is not quick process and takes most of the day.  It’s also not something you want to do on your own.  Time with family is the best part so it’s all hands on deck.  Sometimes a family will start the night before so they don’t have to get up quite so early. Though it takes a lot of time and patience, it is full of fun, laughter, and bonding – and the delicious end results are certainly worth it!

Many homes have an outdoor oven as well as an indoor oven.  Tamales are made in your outdoor oven, so you need to clean down the oven and tables that you will use to make your tamales.  Being outside, they naturally get dirty and have leaves on them.

Next you need to clean the leaves.  While the farmer did a great job, just like you wash your vegetables – when you get home the leaves need to be washed and prepared to be clean to wrap the food.  They then need to be cut into squares.

If someone in your family didn’t bring the corn masa already cooked, that will now need to be cooked.  There are multiple ways and recipes and opinions about the best way to do this – but the best recipe is the one that your family makes, that you grew up with, and that feels like home and love to you.

Once the leaves are cut and the masa is prepared, you are ready to assemble your tamales.  You will have bowls of ingredients lining the table.  Like most recipes, what goes inside can vary from family to family and become a tradition itself but corn masa, pork and vegetables like carrots and peppers are the most common ingredients.

As a family the tamales are filled, and then wrapped.  They are wrapped in a square shape and tied for cooking.  They look like delicious beautiful green presents.  The stack is beautiful and joyful and so is the comfort of friendship and camaraderie.  This atmosphere is why it’s a favorite of so many on our team.

The wrapped tamales are then boiled and the family sits around drinking coffee and enjoying the day while they cook.  Once the tamales are cooked it is now time for eating and eating and more eating.  We can all see why it’s such a fun tradition and hope that you get to enjoy your own family Christmas traditions this year!  If you need a new one, maybe give tamale making a try!

Family Favorite Tamales

Yield:  Approximately 40 tamales

  • ¾ kilos lard
  • 2 complete garlic (the whole thing)
  • Pork or chicken meat
  • Rice
  • Annatto and salt to taste (can sub Paprika/Tumeric mix)
  • 2 large sweet peppers
  • 2 large carrots
  • ½ kilo of french beans
  • 1 small can of petit peas
  • Instant Corn Masa Mix (in the USA Maseca is the most famous brand or use fresh corn)
  • 30 grams of chicken bouillon
  • 1 big Salsa Lizano
  • Bomba Spices (turmeric, cumin, garlic, sweet chili, celery, hot chili, onion, thyme sprigs, wheat flour and achiote) 
  • 1 ½ kilos of banana leaves washed and cut into squares

Put the lard and garlic into a pan and sauté.  After sautéing let it sit and get cold.

While waiting for the garlic mixture to cool, cook the meat.  Don’t drain.

Cook the rice according to the package directions adding salt and the annatto.  

Cut the sweet peppers and carrots into strips.  Remove the tips from the french beans and cut into three parts.  Put the peppers, carrots, beans and peas in separate bowls.

When the lard and garlic mixture is cold add a little of the meat drippings and blend in a blender.  It should create a liquid substance.  Add more drippings if still solid.

Put the masa into a big bowl and add the blended garlic liquid little by little. 

Add the chicken boullion, Bomba Spices, and Salsa Lizano to the masa mixture.  This is all to taste to give the masa your desired flavor.  Taste while adding.

Spoon a dollop of masa mixture into the center of your cut banana leaves.  Top with rice, meat, and vegetables. 

Fold the banana leaf closed like a square package.  Put two tamales together, seams in the middle and tie them with string.  Be sure to knot the string, don’t tie with a bow.

Cook your tamales in a big pot full of water for approximately 1 hr. 

Eat and enjoy with coffee, family, and friends.

Pura Vida!

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