The Art of Random Willy-Nillyness: Costa Rican Tamales ~ A Christmas Tradition
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Costa Rican Tamales ~ A Christmas Tradition

Last year I posted this recipe on my personal blog: Carolyn in Carolina. I wanted to share it on this blog as well. You may or may not know that I am Costa Rican. I was born and raised in the U.S. but still hold fast to some of the traditions that I learned from my parents.

One of those traditions is tamales. Now I do not make tamales at my house because it is a lot of work and Tom does not appreciate the fine qualities of a good Costa Rican Tamale. Making Costa Rican tamales is, frankly, a labor of love. It's not for sissies! The work involved is pretty crazy. You need at least 2 days to make them. But, in the end, it is always satisfying. Plus, you end up with little packets of deliciousness and love.

So, unless I go to Costa Rica, I don;t get tamales here in the states. But when I do go to Costa Rica to visit my family, I get tamales because my mami always makes me some. Plus, you can find them at restaurants all over the country!

Tamales have always been part of our Christmas tradition. I remember making tamales when I was a little tiny thing. It was just something that is done. We HAD to work the tamale line. My abuelita and mami would do most of the work. But me and my sister were always on hand to do the easy work of adding the ingredients to the tamales. My dad was even involved because he was in charge of the fire that cooked the tamales. Making tamales is a family thing!

You make tamales to give away to family and friends. If you are a Tico (nickname for Costa Ricans) you have to have tamales for Christmas. I wrote a post about my childhood memories here. To really understand the importance of tamales in our family, this post is a must read.

I decided a few years ago to document the tamale making process. So when I was in Costa Rica, I had my mom take me through all the steps. My sister and my cousin, Tito, helped too. There is no real recipe for tamales and everyone makes them differently but this is the basic recipe. I am glad that I had the opportunity to document it because I think it is important to preserve family traditions.

When my grandmother died, I was not sure it would continue. I moved away from home but my mom has always kept up the tradition every Christmas. To this day, she makes them. It doesn't matter how much work is involved. Our family and friends will always have tamales for the holidays because of her.

Costa Rican tamales unlike Mexican tamales have a zillion ingredients. Both are made with masa but Costa Rican tamales have so many more ingredients and taste completely different. Don;t get me wrong, I love a good Mexican tamale. But there is nothing like Costa Rican tamales.

You need to get a lot of ingredients together. You need a lot of big pots and a lot of space. You will also need banana leaves, parchment paper, string and various dishes to have the production like ready.

You have to start with the meats. You take a pork shoulder and a chicken and marinade them in various spices and herbs. You need lemons, onions, cilantro, red peppers, salt and pepper and Salsa Lizano. Salsa Lizano is the Worcestershire sauce of Costa Rica. We use it on everything! The goal is to flavor the meat and, thus, flavoring the broth that will go into the masa. You marinade these overnight and then the next day you boil them to make the broth.

My mami

You do not just use masa. You need to add potatoes to the masa. All you need to do is make a mess of mashed potatoes. The ratio of potatoes to masa is 2 to 1. For every 2 pounds of masa, you need a pound of potatoes. Once the potatoes are cooked, you need to make sure they are mashed up well and then you have to make them smooth. You do not use milk just butter and salt. The potatoes also have to be watery and not thickened.

One of the most important things for the masa is to add FAT! It not only help the masa's texture but flavors it as well. When we were younger, my mom and grandmother used chicharrones to flavor the masa.  We then moved on to using bacon. I prefer the chicharrones though. You can also use real pork fat or lard. Sometimes my mom also uses margarine but I would rather use butter. It is about the flavor so it is super important to use tasty fat. The fat ratio is important. How do you know if you have enough fat? You have to eyeball it. My mom said if you can see a little fat rise up in the masa, it is good.

The masa is so important. If you have crappy, tasteless masa, the tamales will be sucky. We use Maseca corn flour. This stuff is great and will make good masa.

Take the Maseca flour and put it into a large pot. Add the potatoes and start mixing. The next step is to take a stick of butter and melt it down and add that as well. Also, take the broth from the pork and chicken you cooked and start adding it slowly to the masa. The whole time you need to keep mixing the masa which is sort of a pain.

The masa must be smooth.  The lumps need to be taken out and this is best done with your hands. You want the masa pretty loose but not watery. It will thicken up when you cook it.

By this time, we have boiled the pork and chicken with all the marinade stuff and made a tasty broth. You don't have to cook the meats all the way. You just have to make enough broth to flavor the masa. But you have to make sure that the broth is just broth and nothing else so make sure to strain it! Once that is done, you take the broth and add it to the masa along with the potatoes and butter.

Once this is done, you need to add more flavor to the masa. The broth is not enough. This is where that great fat comes in. I have been the masa taster for years. I have a better palate so I was designated the taster when I was in my teens. Besides the fat of bacon or chicharrones, you need salt, pepper, Salsa Lizano and Tabasco sauce. We discovered a long time ago that you could use the bacon or chicharrones by blending them with a little broth. You just have to ensure that those are blended well. You make a bacon smoothie! Yum! This is not rocket science but you have to add the ingredients and taste until you get a great masa. And you want it a little over flavored because once it cooks with the other ingredients it loses a little taste. Once the masa is flavored, it is time to cook it.

You have to cook the masa in batches. It has to be cooked because at this point, it is pretty watery. It has to be thickened up. So we take a smaller pot and start cooking it over low heat. And you have to watch it. You have to constantly stir it. It will burn easily and if you scorch it, it is ruined.

This is also when you check the edges of the pot to see if you have enough fat in the masa. If not, add more butter or bacon grease. If it is too thick, you can add a little broth. But at this point in the process, the masa should not need anything. You want to make sure that the consistency is like polenta. It should be thick but not stiff. It should simmer, not boil. Once the masa cools though, it will get stiff so you have to make the tamales right away.

While someone is cooking the masa, you have others working on the filling. One of those filling is the rice. The rice can be made ahead of time. It is easy to do since it does not have to be cooked all the way. But you HAVE to have the rice. We make the rice and add achiote (annatto seed) for coloring and flavoring. Cook the rice so it is still al dente. Do not cook it all the way. And you add a ton of black pepper.

The meat you cooked up will also be used. So at this time, you should have already have it chopped up into chunks. You use the chicken as well. My mom adds encurtido de mostaza (pickled vegetables in mustard) to flavor the meat. This, however, is just something my mom does. You can use the meat as is.

Here is the list of the fillings we use: carrots, green beans, capers, olives, prunes, raisins, garbanzo beans, red pepper strips and peas. I might have forgotten some ingredients but that list is pretty complete. Plus, you have the rice, meat and chicken. I like my tamales with just rice, meat and olives. So I get special tamales.

You put all the ingredients in little bowls to make the tamale production line easier. The banana leaves are the next important thing you have to have. We bought them at the Central Market already prepped and cut. When my mom ran out and had one of the guards who takes care of the parking lot across the street cut some for us. Before you use the banana leaves, they must be be cooked. You can either boil and clean them or grill them. Then they are cut into squares.

I remember when we were little and lived in Los Angeles, we had banana plants in our yard. SO my dad would always cut the banana leaves from the yard for the tamales. 

This is my cousin prepping the leaves

You need to have a tamale production line. That sounds weird but that is how it has to be done. There should be one person who arranges the banana leaves. You need two per tamale. Then that same person puts a dollop of masa on the banana leaf. Then they add a tablespoon of the rice. Then it is passed on to the next person who adds the meat and chicken and maybe one or two of the other ingredients. Then on to the next person who finishes adding the ingredients. The last person should be the tamale wrapper.

Wrapping the tamales is something I don't do. I might be able to do it but I let others take that job. It's not that hard but it requires some skill. I stick to flavoring the masa. You wrap them up and make sure they are tight. Then you tie them with string, in packages of two.

The last step is to cook the tamales. You take the tamales and boil them for about an hour. Once that is done, they are ready to eat. You have to let them cool just a little and then eat them.

After they cool you can store them in the fridge and just boil them again to eat them. They are best eaten for breakfast or with a little coffee in the afternoon. Again, making tamales is a labor of love and a wonderful tradition that I cherish! I cannot wait to go back to Costa Rica to eat more of these.

These are my special rice, meat and olive only tamales. 

The family recipe has been passed down and I am glad I can share it with my readers!

Buen Provecho! 


  1. I love the step by step pictures! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Love the photos especially the banana leaves.
    I forgot to add the fat to the mass on year! Definitely a crucial ingredient :-)

  3. Oh wow these looks SO good! I love the rice filling idea - yum! Thanks for sharing these gorgeous photos!

  4. Thanks for sharing all the steps. I never realized all the work involved.

  5. These look so delicious! I love Tamales and I bet these are very good! I would love to try authentic Costa Rican Tamales for Christmas. I can make tamales, but nothing like this!

  6. That looks like a lot of work but soooo delicious! Gotta love family traditions :)

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  8. ok! now i need to find a mexican restaraunt...i might try thids at home if i have time..thanks

  9. I would love to try making tamales. Thanks for the step by step pictures.

  10. This recipe looks so good, I am going to try it tomorrow.

  11. These look so delicious. I have not eaten a tamale in over 20 years. I have not even seen tamales in the restaurants that I frequent.

  12. I thought that this looks good enough for any season, not just the winter holidays. It really looks very delicious.

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    people knowledge, well, keep up the nice work fellows.

  15. These lok amazing. I love traditions like this. his is something special a family gets together and enjoys.
    ellenn beck