In Costa Rica the holiday season brings with it many traditions. One of the most awaited of those traditions is Christmas tamales.

Making Christmas tamales is a tradition that has been around for centuries, handed down from generation to generation. For most Costa Ricans the best parts of making tamales is the closeness of family and friends, sharing stories of times gone by and the festive mood that is created when Tico’s get together.

Personally, I am not big tamale fan. I like them, but they are not something I will go out of the way to eat. That was until I had one of Gerardo’s mothers tamales. In my humble opinion, Mami Ofe makes the best tamales I have ever eaten.

Years back on one of our visits to Costa Rica, Mami had invited my family over to her house to share their family tradition of making tamales. We had so much fun and it was an experience I have never forgotten. In the end, making tamales some how turned into a big neighborhood party.

I enjoyed my tamale experience so much that I wanted to share it with others. I called Mami Ofe and asked her if she would be willing to come to Atenas and teach a group of “gringos” how to make her famous tamales. On the other end of the line she let out a big laugh and said “claro que si”, which means of course! Before she hung up, Mami instructed me to grab a pen and paper and make a list of ingredients that we would need.

Throughout the Americas tamales can be found in varying forms as is true in Costa Rica. The base of the tamale is masa, which is a corn dough made from dried corn that is finely ground after it has been cooked. Once the corn has been ground then it can be prepared with spices, pork fat and stock to make a flavorful base for the tamales.

In addition to the masa, tamales are filled with pork, chicken, rice, green beans, carrots, sweet peas, raisins, potato, boiled egg, olives and an array of other ingredients. Every family has their own recipe and favorite ingredients. The masa and other ingredients are then wrapped up in banana leaves to create the tamale.

By tying two tamales together you create a “piña”. The piña’s are then carefully stacked into a large kettle, filled with water and boiled for about an hour. Traditionally tamales were cooked over a wood fire. Today many families still carry on this part of the tradition, cooking their tamales over a wood fire using coffee wood.

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For our Atenas tamale day we invited a few friends to joint us and share in the festivities. Gerardo’s mother arrived along with his younger sister Wendy. As soon as Mami walked in the door she put on her apron and cracked the whip, reminding us that the process of making tamales is time consuming.

I had been given orders to prepare all the meats (pork and chicken) and vegetables ahead of time to save precious hours that could be better spent dancing and make the process simpler.

We began by wiping down the banana leaves with a clean cloth. The banana leaves are smoked to “cure” them, making them more pliable and easier to use. The next step in the process was to prepare the masa.

To make a good masa you MUST use fresh ground corn which is mixed with stock, lard and a variety of spices, then cooked over a low heat for about 45 minutes. Mami Ofe adds two secret ingredients (Salsa Lizano and tomato sauce) that makes her masa different and more flavorful than most. Once the masa and the other ingredients are ready the assembly line can begin.

To be comfortable you need to spread out on a large area like a table or bar to assemble your tamales. The first step is to lay down several (2-3) pieces of banana leaves in opposite directions. You then put a large spoon of masa in the center of your banana leaves.

You can now begin to add your ingredients. A spoon full of rice, a few sweet peas, thinly sliced carrots, strips of red pepper, steamed green beans, pieces of pork and chicken, the raisins.

Once all your ingredients are in place you have to fold the leaves over, making sure the filling does not come out the ends, creating a nice square package. The finished product should look like a nicely wrapped Christmas package.

You then put two tamales together, back to back and tie them with string to create a “pina”. You then arrange the “pina’s” in large pot or kettle, fill with hot water making sure that all the tamales are covered and boil for one hour. The last step in the process is to make a pot of coffee and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Gerardo and I want to thank Mami Ofe for her love and helping us show others the tradition of making Christmas tamales, one of the most awaited traditions of the holiday season here in Costa Rica. We hope that some of you will try to make your own tamales and enjoy the process as much as we do!

I have to note here that during the whole afternoon there was music blaring in the background and in between making tamales, Gerardo, his sister Wendy and Mami Ofe were dancing around the kitchen to the sounds of cumbia, salsa and merengue!

Making Christmas Tamales in Costa Rica Video.


Making Christmas Tamales in Atenas, Costa Rica. With free video.

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