Costa Rica does not have a monopoly on the Yuletide tamal

As the end-of-the-year holidays approach, different countries begin to prepare their comida tipica, and for Central America the popular dish is the tamal.

It is usually served as the main course for Christmas. A tamal is made out of masa from maize, stuffed with a piece of meat and wrapped in a leaf. In the United States, the better known tamale is the Mexican one, made with very thick masa or dough and wrapped in corn husk. In Central America, there is a slight difference in tamales from the Mexican ones. Tamales here usually are cooked in a plantain or banana leaf wrapping.

There is no universal tamal among the seven countries in Central America. Each one has its own version of the traditional dish. The differences coincide with the size, the ingredients, the preparation and, of course, the taste.

According to Flor de Monroy, master Costa Rican and Guatemalan cook, the hardest tamales to make are from Guatemala. The Costa Rican native also said that Guatemalan tamales are much tastier than the ones from her country. There are not any known Guatemalan restaurants in Costa Rica, so a spokesperson for the Guatemalan Embassy recommended Ms. De Monroy. She broke down the recipes on how to make the perfect Costa Rican tamal and Guatemalan tamal colorado, so called because of the red sauce ingredient.

Costa Rica

She said the plantain leaf and the masa can be purchased already made at various groceries and markets which make it easy to make a Costa Rican tamal. She said to lay the plantain leaf on a flat surface, grab a handful ofmasa and flatten it onto the leaf, then add a pinch of cooked rice and a garbanzo bean. Some people add an egg and an olive to the middle of the tamal.

She said when the tamal is formed, the cook folds up the leaf with all the ingredients inside, ties it up tightly with string. Costa Ricans tie up the tamales in a piña, two-in-two, then boil them in a pot of hot water. Mrs. de Monroy said a cook has to make sure the tamales are tied up tightly, otherwise the masa will seep out into the water. The commercial pre-made ones purchased at a grocery have a decorative strand of carrot on top of the tamal.

Commercial production centers on the town of Aserrí where completed tamales are steamed over a wood fire. Later they are
reheated by purchasers just before eating, Purists reject the use of microwaves and say that this can dry out the tamal. They use more boiling water.

The Costa Rican tamal usually is accompanied by Salsa Lizano or another of the commercial, bottled sauces.


Unlike the simplicity of the Costa Rican tamal, the one from the Mayan country includes a lot more vegetables and spices. And the tamal has its own sauce. Guatemalans include the ingredients of pan frances (a local mini French bread) and a recado, the special sauce, to their tamal. But first, once the masa is made or purchased, it has to be soaked with rice, then stirred together. Finally the broth from the meat is added. The broth is not obligatory, but for a stronger taste, the cooked meat juice comes from either chicken or pork.

The recado can’t be bought, so it has to be made from scratch. The ingredients needed are cooked or grilled red tomatoes, miltomates (tiny green tomatoes), onion,chile dulce, chile pasa, chiles guaqueres, sesame seeds,pepitoria (a dark red spice), and a stick of cinnamon.  All of these are mixed together in a blender until a red liquid is produced. Then the cook boils it. Some like to let pan frances, a small piece of bread unlike the long North American French loaf, soak in the sauce until it is soggy and then blend it into the sauce for a thicker recado.

Once the masa and the recado are made, the time is ripe to create the tamal. The plantain leaf is placed on a flat surface, a handful of masa is flattened into a thick tortilla, a chunk of meat is placed in the middle of the masa, and the recado is drizzled onto the meat and the masa. Two slivers of red bell peppers are placed parallel along with an olive and a caper on the masa.

Finally, the leaf is folded and tied up with twine, similar to a Christmas present. The single tamal is then boiled in a hot pot of water.

These recipes are by Ms. De Monroy. She is married to a Guatemalan and learned how to cook Chapin or Guatemalan when she lived in the country for many years.

*Ms. Encinias wrote this piece for the Nov. 18, 2011, newspaper, and editors decided they could not do any better this year.

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