If you’re Costa Rican, then you have likely spent at least part of every Christmas season in the company of your entire extended family making tamales. The process can take days, but it ends with a a giant pot of banana wrapped tamales that last the whole Christmas season.
For those lacking a Costa Rican grandmother or the patience to wait until December, there is Antojitos de Maíz, a restaurant in San Isidro de El General completely dedicated to corn.
The restaurant’s tamales are such a hit that local hotel Monte Azul has begun sending its guests over for cooking classes. So, with the illusion that we would soon be professional tamale chefs, two Tico Times reporters headed to Antojitos for a crash course in tamale-making. It turns out, that there is a good reason Costa Ricans only make tamales once a year. But if you happen to have hours of free time, there are few Tico dishes as delicious as homemade tamales.
Step 1: Preparation and ingredients
Making tamales is labor intensive, with each ingredient encompassing an entire meal in itself. To speed up the process, we were greeted in the Antojitos kitchen with bowls of pre-cut and pre-cooked ingredients, but to make your own tamales you first need to prepare the filling. We used a spicy chicken filling in our tamales, but there are other meat and vegetarian variations.
While you can fill your tamales with practically anything, traditional Costa Rican tamales almost always use saffron rice (which needs to be prepared separately), cilantro, sweet peppers and carrots. Though most of the fillings are optional you will need the following:
- Dried corn or masa mix
- Skinned potatoes
- Square-cut plantain leaves
- A stove or bonfire
- A large pot for boiling
Step 2: Making the masa
Making up the corn part of the tamale is masa, the spongy outer layer over the filling. Traditionally masa is made by manually grinding up dried rice kernels and mixing the resulting powder with water.
Because they produce mass quantities of masa, Antojitos uses a grinding machine, and because no one has the time or energy to grind up corn with a rolling pin, most Costa Rican households use pre-made masa from a grocery store.
You then mix your ground masa with skinned potatoes and water to create dough and cook this on the stove until it has a mashed potato-like consistency. At Antojitos we added chicken broth to the masa, but you can also add vegetables or other meat broth.
Step 3: Wrapping the tamales
Once everything is cooked, it’s time to actually assemble the tamales using the plantain leaves and string. Spread a plantain leaf onto a counter and scoop two or three ladles full of masa into the leaf’s center.
Next, add whatever it is you want to fill your tamales with on top of the masa trying not to pack too much onto the leaf. We added chicken, carrots, sweet chili, cilantro and cheese.
Fold the long sides of the leaf over the masa puddle and roll the ends once or twice (until it stays in place). Then fold the other two sides in forming a square. Finally, wrap the string both ways over the leaf and tie it in a bow forming what looks like a plantain leaf present.
Step 4: Set to boil
Gather your tiny plantain leaf packages and transfer them into a pot of water for boiling. Be sure to leave the pot covered in order to steam the tamales. Boiling time will vary depending on the number of tamales.
Step 5: Enjoy!
Usually you let the tamales cool before eating them to give them time to take shape, but we just couldn’t wait and ate our tamales mushy and hot.