Costa Rican Tamale Recipe

Tamales with Tamarind and Chan
Tamales with Tamarind and Chan. It just doesn’t get any better.

Tamales are a traditional Tico Christmas specialty, but many tipico restaurants serve them year round for the tourists, and if you’re a really good boy sometimes Christmas comes in July. We met Emilse and Joya at their home in Pital, and in the course of the small talk about what we liked about their country it came out that my favorite Tico dish was the tamales I’d had on a previous Christmas trip. I was surprised on a subsequent visit in mid-July with the best batch of tamales I’ve ever tasted. Now I’m sure to make it clear that tamales are my favorite whenever anyone asks.

Thanks go out to Roiner for taking the time to get us this recipe from the ladies who make them for the holiday festivities in La Fortuna de Bagaces (where I first tasted them).

Costa Rican Tamale Recipe

2 lbs instant corn masa mix
3 lbs (1.4 kg) pork shoulder roast -or- beef roast -or-
boneless chicken

¼ lb (110 gr) pork lard (or vegetable shortening)
1 cup (240 ml) corn oil
1 batch (~5 cups cooked Tico style rice, see ingredient list and recipe below)
2 ¼ lbs (1 kg) potatoes
8 cloves of garlic
½ lb (225 gr) sweet or hot peppers to taste
1 large onion (optional)
2 ¼ lbs (1 kg) banana leaves (corn husks can be substituted, or if desperate aluminum foil)
coriander leaves (cilantro), salt, black pepper, cumin, oregano, achiote (annato)

Regional Tamale ingedients
Tamales often include little regional surprises like olives or garbanzos

If you are adventurous and demand complete authenticity, you must start from raw corn ground for tamales (3 lbs, 1.4 kg Maíz cascado, malido crudo). Soak the flour in water then rinse it well, cook with a tablespoon of achiote, and a little of the garlic and peppers in salted water to just cover until tender then stand overnight. The next day, knead it into dough. You should probably have a demonstration first if you’re going to try this method. For first timers we’d suggest the Masa version described below.

Chop the meat into large (2″, 5 cm) chunks then brown on high heat in the ½ cup lard or vegetable oil. Add the chopped garlic, peppers, onion, 1 teaspoon salt, 1teaspoon cumin, ½ teaspoon black pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt for the last minute or two of browning, then cover with water and simmer until very tender (2-3 hours). Remove the meat from the broth and reserve the broth. When the meat is cool shred it finely. While the meat is simmering prepare the potatoes and rice.

Peel the potatoes and boil with salt, cilantro, and oregano to taste until soft. Cool and cut into ½ inch (1 cm) cubes.

Rice Tico style

3-5 sprigs cilantro (coriander leaf)
1 small or half a medium onion
½ small red or yellow sweet pepper (optional)
3 cups (700 ml) chicken broth or water
2 cups (350 ml) white rice
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
1 Tablespoon (15 ml) vegetable oil

Chop cilantro, onion, and sweet pepper very fine. Add 1 Tablespoon oil to a large pan and sauté the dry rice for 2 minutes over medium high flame then add the chopped onion, sweet pepper and cilantro and sauté another 2 minutes. Add water or chicken broth, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer until rice is tender (20-35 minutes).

To prepare the masa, allow the meat broth to cool until it is just warm. To the dry masa add 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1 teaspoon ground achiote, and mix dry. Then add the vegetable oil, mix with your hands while adding the warm broth. It should take about 2 1/2 cups to make a paste the consistency of mashed potatoes. Mix and add slowly, and if you over shoot on the broth and get it too thin, add a little more masa.

Wrap the Tamales & Steam

Diagram to fold tamales in banana leaves
Diagram for folding tamales in banana leaves

Wash the banana leaves then cut them into ~15 inch (38 cm) squares. Spread 2 tablespoons of masa paste in the center, add 1 tablespoon each of potatoes, rice and meat. Fold as shown and tie with cotton string. Cook the tamales in gently boiling water for about one hour.

If you substitute corn husks, you will need to make slightly smaller tamales, pack the pot full and steam them rather than boiling them, because the husks won’t hold together while floating around.