A Typical Dish with Lots of History
When the weather starts to change mid- November in Costa Rica, it is a sure sign that the holidays are coming. Ticos begin to get ready for the massive preparation of the quintessential Costa Rican holiday dish: the tamale.
A delicacy of native origins, the tamale consists of corn dough -- either from masa harina or ground dried corn (hominy) -- cooked with pork fat and spices and filled with a variety of vegetables from carrots to potatoes and stewed pork meat. Some cooks may include olives, tomato, rice, capers and even raisins. The difference between the Costa Rican and its Mexican counterpart (largely known to North Americans) is the fact that the Costa Rican version is wrapped in banana or plantain leaves instead of the corn husks used in the land of the Aztecs; ours are also boiled in water instead of steamed.
History behind the tamale’s creation remains rather cloudy, yet historians believe that native Mesoamerican Indians ground the corn kernels to make a dough, filled it with whatever available at the time, and then cooked the tamales in a cauldron over hot stones or wood. They were apparently made for special occasions, such as harvest feasts or marriages.
Tamales can be found throughout Mexico and Central America with variations that depend on what the locals use and the seasonal produce one may find in a particular region. In Nicaragua, for instance, tamales are known as Nacatamales and include bacon, rice and vegetables.
Tamales became even more popular during feudal times, when farm workers gathered for the holidays with celebration foods utilizing the most readily available products: corn and pork. Tradition evolved from a native celebration to a religious-inspired meal historically served around Christmas, and today during the entire month of December.
A Family Tradition
In the past, making tamales was a whole family affair, sometimes including grandparents and children all set up in a perfect assembly line, each one with a particular task either as simple as adding cilantro for the kids, or at the top of the line as the official folder or wrapper for the moms. Grandma always has the last word on taste, firmness, and ingredient selection, playing her role of Executive Chef marvelously.
Some of Tico families’ secret recipes are so elaborate that they may call for a particular kind of corn and/or pork, and the perfect seasoning combination. I remember my aunts getting ready for the season by collecting a tremendous amount of banana leaves and making several trips to the local mill. There, many pounds of local dry corn are cooked with ashes and then processed to create the finest, richest dough that needs very little seasoning.
This process takes several days of preparation before the big day, where the experts put their hands together and make enough tamales for everyone, often in batches of hundreds so that no extended family members are left out. It is common among neighbors to exchange tamales and to taste each other’s skills, developing favorites and crowning community women as having the best recipe around!
Tamaleadas are traditions that are slowly getting lost in our modern life. Today, only some families make tamales as described above. Instead, tamaleras, or tamale-making companies, make tamales to every customer specification and taste.
The trend in healthy eating of late also yielded a new kind of tamale made the light way. People choose not to include meat in it or to use different kinds of starches for the dough, from cassava to sweet potato, as well as stronger spices, herbs or even powerful sauces to finish the dish. Other forms of tamales include ones filled with refried beans or even the tamal mudo or “mute tamale,” consisting of nothing but spiced dough that is then cut into rounds and pan-fried in brown butter.
If you happen to be in Costa Rica for the holidays, chances are that someone will invite you to taste their tamale creations and the warmth of our culture during these special times.
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