By Ivo Henfling
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 (see the picture on the left). This is a Costarican specialty that the locals eat for Christmas, but my mother in law makes them really well (I hope she reads this). I eat about 5 in two weeks and I’ve had enough, but I know people that eat between 5 – 10 a day. 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 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, depending 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 and you 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.
First you start out buying the corn and just taking them of 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 other. 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 of them, 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 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.
You can also buy the tamales in the grocery store, 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, knowing them, they will offer you some made by mom, aunt or grandma.
Please try them, if you don’t like them you can always go back to the Virginia ham next year.
Buen provecho y Feliz Navidad.