An expat’s guide to the traditional Christmas tamal

There is nothing that defines the Christmas season in Costa Rica more than the tamal, the corn dough treat carefully wrapped in banana leaves and baked and then boiled.

They can be found in little saunas at the grocery around Christmas.

But they can be a tricky dish. So here are some tips for expats:

1. Don’t eat the banana leaves. Tamales produce more waste per eatable portion than any other food. Merchants sell the banana leaves by the kilo, and it seems that each tamal requires at least a half kilo of carefully trimmed banana leaves.

A well-prepared tamal will have two layers of leaves, and these are important because if water reaches the dough inside during boiling, the tamal will be ruined.

2. It’s not a pineapple. For reasons that still befuddle the Real Academia of the Spanish language, Costa Ricans refer to two tamales tied together with string as a piña. So there is no fruit involved.

The word must be used with care because in other Spanish-speaking countries, piña suggests non-standard sexuality.

3. Careful! Some families who make thousands of tamales each year probably have some dentists as relatives. They include in the mix olives that still contain a pit. Ouch!

4. The universal condiment, Salsa Lizano, is a mandatory addition to the tamal on the plate. The sauce, heavy with pepper, mustard and  turmeric is moderately hot and stays with the diner for hours.

5. Tamales are a family tradition. When invited to a Costa Rican home, the correct response is  “Your tamales are the best.”

There is a grandmother in the kitchen who worked two weeks to create the perfect tamal according to the standards of her grandmother. The praise is obligatory even if the additional chilis force smoke through the ears.

6. Buy them. Unless an expat has Latin blood coursing through the veins, expats should not attempt to make tamales. At best doing so is a family affair that lasts a couple of days. Without knowing the trick of the trade, the result can be a mess.

A typical tamal contains more than a dozen ingredients.

7. Lard is one of the basic constituents of a tamal. There is no Weight Watcher’s lard on the market. A serious tamal will weigh in around 400 calories, be it pork or chicken. So a piña is double that, plus additional for the sauce. And the Imperial beer needed to dampen the effects of  Salza Lizano adds a couple hundred more calories.

So an expat can resign him or herself to gaining a few pounds or go out there and dance the weight off. About 12 hours of aggressive salsa should do it.

Bet you can't eat just one. This is a piña ready for action.

Bet you can’t eat just one. This is a piña ready for action.

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