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Tamales in Christmas time in Costa Rica | you must try it

Tamales in Christmas time in Costa Rica | you must try itHave you tried tamales made in Costa Rica yet? Right now, while I am writing this blog, I’m having a tamal de cerdo, made by my mother in law and the rest of the family.

The tamal is a Costa Rican specialty that the locals eat for Christmas. It is typical Tico food and my mother in law makes them really well (I hope she reads this).

I eat about 5 tamales in two weeks and by then, I’ve had enough. Ticos though can eat between 5 – 10 a day, or even more.

They eat tamales for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like North Americans eat turkey for a week. If you want to feel at home in Costa Rica, you need to try and eat tamales.

What is a tamal de cerdo

If you really want to learn about Tico food, read on…

If you are planning to live in Costa Rica or you already do, you have an obligation to yourself to try a tamal de cerdo.

The tamal is really an important Christmas tradition for any Tico and even those who have married one. A tamal de cerdo is a steamed corncake made of corn dough, filled with all kinds of ingredients like cooked rice, pork meat (cerdo), peas and sometimes olives, raisins, carrots, and many other ingredients. The number of ingredients depend on how wealthy or poor the family is.

To make these tamales is very hard work and usually, they are made in a team effort, the whole family will join in. I haven’t done it like in 25 years but it was fun when the kids were small.

Many Latin American countries, like Venezuela, Mexico and Columbia also make tamales, but they all make them a little different. In Nicaragua and Honduras, they are much larger and called Nacatamal.

Just the shopping and getting the ingredients ready is a lot of work. You do need someone really organized in the family to make it all happen. How do you calculate how much meat, how many carrots, how many pounds of raisins etc.? AND you need big pots and pans to cook them.

How to make a tamal

First, you start out buying the corn and just taking them off the cob is a lot of work. Then you have to cook it and take it to the corn mill. Every small neighborhood has one, some cleaner than others. Most wash them out every time they have grounded a batch of corn for a client, but when the line of people gets longer….

Make sure you buy the right plantain tree leaves (hojas de platano). AND enough leaves because you need to use those as a wrap. Then the fun starts. Put the corn and the right amount of “stuffing” just like you would fill a turkey. Fold the leaves in such a way that when you finish cooking them, the stuffing and the corn won’t come out. The usually pack two tamales together with a string, which keeps the water out when cooking. It also kind of obliges you to eat two of them.

How to eat a tamal

You can also buy the tamales in the grocery store, just like you’d do with a lot of Tico food, but they are no way as good as my mom in law’s tamales. Before you eat them, make sure you heat them up. You can do so in a pan of water or in the microwave, although they dry out quickly if you do the last. Make sure you buy a bottle of Lizano sauce, a typical Costarican sauce that you use for rice and beans and everything else the Ticos eat. It’s kind of a Worcestershire sauce and the Ticos swear by it. Don’t put too much of the sauce on it, you will mess it up. For those who like hot food like my wife, put some salsa picante on it too.

You do run the risk of getting a “tamal tonto”, a “stupid tamal”, which is a tamal made of the last corn when there is no stuffing left.

Don’t eat the plantain leaves, unless you’re really hungry. They’re just used as a wrap. If you insist, please use a lot of salt and pepper and Lizano sauce.

It’s one of those typical Costarican things that many foreigners ever get to try because they either insist in their Virginia ham, or they don’t know the right people to make them. Ask any Tico where to get some good ones, and knowing them, they will offer you some made by mom, aunt or grandma. Even though eating tamales is really a Christmas tradition, you can get tamales every day.

Please try them, with or without salsa Lizano, if you don’t like them you can always go back to the Virginia ham next year.

Buen provecho y Feliz Navidad.


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Ivo Henfling

If you are looking to buy a home in Costa Rica or invest in a condo anywhere in the central Valley, or looking for any property for sale in Escazu, you need to call me. I have been selling real estate in Escazu for over 20 years and can show you hundreds of happy buyers of real estate in Escazu and other areas. To me, a deal is not a good deal unless both buyer and seller are happy.

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