Making tamales is a long and very time consuming process. But of all the Costa Rican dishes, I love these the most. Well tamales and olla de carne. The bottom line is that in Costa Rica you make like a billion tamales during the holiday season. You give them out to friends and family and anyone who comes by your house. You eat them for breakfast and at coffee time (sort of like tea time in the UK) and for dinner. At a certain point you get tamalied out because not only are you eating your own but others give them to you as well.
Anyhow, at our house this was something that was done once a year during Christmas and the whole family was involved. The process started a week or so before the day of making the tamales. And you had to have them done before Christmas Eve. The first thing was to gather banana leaves. We lived in Los Angeles and had several banana trees at our house. My dad would go out and cut down the leaves with is machete. He would bring them in where we would boil them and then cut them into a uniform size for the tamales. You can also "grill" the leaves to get them ready. In Costa Rica, you wrap the whole tamale in the banana leaf but my mom used parchment paper and banana leaves. We used the leaves for that flavor but the paper was easier to wrap around the tamales. If we didn't have enough leaves, we bought them at the Mexican grocery store where my mom bought the masa.
The masa is a chore. My mom bought the raw masa and then we had to flavor it and cook it for the tamales. Now this is the part I am not sure about it. Because I remember that my mom would cook up a whole bunch of potatoes to add to the masa. This is the only part of the recipe that I would be iffy on if I had to make my own tamales. Somehow the potatoes were incorporated into the masa and then you would cook them together.
To flavor the masa, we used all type of things. The day before, my mom cooked up a few pork shoulders or butts with tons of spices. There were also a few whole chickens cooked up as well. The meat was heavily spiced because the broth was to be used to loosen up and flavor the masa. The meat itself was used in the tamales. So the day before it was heaven in our house with the smell of pork and chicken. Also used were chicharrones (fried pork skin) and pork fat. My god, I am all about pork fat. In later years, we decided that bacon was also a great way to flavor the masa.
So basically once the masa and potatoes were mixed, we added the broth from the chickens and pork, pork fat and finely chopped pork skin to flavor the masa. Salt, pepper, Salsa Lizano, Tabasco sauce and other spices were added as well. When I was real little my mom and grandmother were always the tasters. Somewhere along the way, I became the person who had the Final Word on the masa because I had a really good taste for it. I remember tasting it and saying it needed more salt, more Salsa Lizano or more pork fat. I usually said it needed more pork fat all the time.
Once the masa was flavored and cooked, the process of actually putting together the tamales began. Of course before this we would lay out the tamale fillings. Costa Rican tamales are filled with a lot of stuff. I can't remember everything but there were carrots, capers, olives, prunes, raisins , peas, pork, chicken, green beans, red pepper, garbanzo beans and rice. I am sure I forgot something but that is all I remember. The rice was usually over seasoned especially with pepper and undercooked so that it would finish cooking when the tamales were cooked.
So we had to cut up all these items. Many times we used frozen peas or canned green beans etc. to make it easier. All the fillings had to be laid out on the table so we could start the assembly line. The whole family would help. My dad I remember was the person who would pick up the giant pots of masa and bring it to the table so we could start the process. He also built a fire outside because once the tamales were ready, they needed to be cooked and since there were so many tamales, we cooked them outside. Me and my sister were usually the tamale stuffers.
To make a tamale you take a sheet of the parchment paper that has been cut to a uniform size. You then take a banana leaf and place it on top of the paper. The next step is a dollop of masa. I can't tell you how much masa because that was something you just figured out by eyeballing it. The next item on the tamale was the rice. At this point the tamale was passed on onto the next person who had 3-4 ingredients that they had to add to the tamale. After they finished it went down to the next person who finished adding the fillings. My mother or grandmother were always the last leg of the process because this was the tricky part. Once the items were placed on the masa, the last person would take another smaller dollop of masa and place it on top. Then a smaller banana leaf was placed on top of that. Then the tamale had to be wrapped up like a little present. Once you had two tamales, they were tied together and put aside to be cooked outside.
We used to make hundreds of these babies and it would take all day. Luckily we could sit and I loved snacking on the ingredients especially the pork but I would always get in trouble because some item would always run out faster. But these were the best times ever. We would talk and laugh. It was during those times that I learned so many things from both my mom and grandmother and those were special times. We would also hear all the gossip about the family, which I loved. My grandmother would also tell us stories about her childhood and my mom's childhood in Costa Rica. I remember begging my grandmother to tell me stories I have heard 1,000 times before.
Anyway, at the end of the tamale-making process there was always too much masa left or too few ingredients so we made a tamale called a tonto. A tonto (dummy) tamale was the last tamale made. Usually it was huge and jammed packed full of some ingredients and missing others. Usually my dad ate this one. I never liked it because it had too many ingredients and I didn't like that.
As I got older, I would make my mom and grandmother make me my own special tamales. I hated capers and prunes and red peppers so ultimately, I would get my special tamales that consisted of just masa, rice and meat and sometimes an olive. Yummy. To this day I still would rather have my tamales this way.
After the tamales were assembled, the next step was to cook the tamales. My dad would take them out to the fire outside and place them in huge pots full of water. They would cook for awhile. While that was being done, we had to clean up and wait for the the first taste. My grandmother and mom were amazing because this process took so much effort yet they pulled it off every year. Once the tamales were done we had to sample them of course.
Oh the first bite of a warm tamale is something close to heaven. I always hoped my first bite was that of the pure masa with maybe just a little rice. Oh the taste! I would savor it. Then I would move on to my next bite and I always made sure I got a piece of pork in that bite. And it was always a great thing if you got a piece of fatty pork. Exquisite. The unexpected surprise was always the bite of the olive. It was tart and balanced well with masa.
People would come on Noche Buena and have tamales. Then they would arrive all day on Christmas. After a few years my parents didn't even invite people, they just showed up. We never knew who would show up but people always did. And they expected tamales. On the 25th, we would also have ham or turkey or both and other foods but the tamales were always the favorite. Of course, when people left we had to give them 4 or 6 tamales to take back home in addition to any presents they got. Once in a while my parents friends would bring their tamales but, to be perfectly honest, they were never ever as good as ours. To this day, I still contend ours were the best ever!
Now I rarely get tamales. I had a few last year when we went to Costa Rica to visit my parents. My mom had already made them so I totally missed on on the process. I think I will have to ask my mom for the recipe and try to make some here in North Carolina. I know I can probably find masa because we have a Mexican grocery store here in town. I know my mom reads this so mami send me the recipe!!
I had to share this story because the one thing that reminds me of Christmas, besides my sister since her birthday is on Christmas, are tamales. Anytime I think of Christmas my mouth waters for those delicious packets of goodness. Oh I am so hungry now.