Cookery, Lifestyle

Journey into the ‘Tamale’

In Costa Rica the festivals (above all the Christmas ones) have always inevitably included this unique Indian food. And the same happens in other Latin American nations.


Isabel Soto Mayedo


This is due to the fact that in Costa Rica many families are still attached to the tradition of preparing this gift together for the palate and unconsciously they worship the Indian heritage in this area by doing so.

A drop of guaro or aguardiente (popular alcoholic beverages), is never missing amid the hustle involved in the preparation of this food, for which friends and relatives are called upon to share the work and take the opportunity to share some fun away from daily routines.

Connoisseurs say that the secret is in the tamale dough or cracked corn, but much of its pleasure is attributed to the meat, rice, carrots, potatoes, beans or chickpeas, fresh chili, or other things in the mixture which is cooked and then wrapped in banana leaves.

Others try the taste with peas, capers, pipián, spice paste –and even olives, but everyone agrees that the most important ingredient is the originality of the cook.

Long is the history of this custom in Tica land, and in most parts of Central America, where apart from the traditional pork and chicken tamales, there are other varieties, always based on corn.

Among this multiplicity of forms, the most intriguing is the chipilín, in which you incorporate leaves of this plant, whose scientific name is Crotalaraia Longirostrata, into the mixture.

So called pishques or mudos also tend to be well received, made from corn dough baked in ashes, which are usually filled with refried beans and sometimes mixed with peppers.

Both kinds of tamales use banana or platano leaves as a wrap, and no filler.

Similarly to what happens in El Salvador,Costa Rican families eat equal amounts of corn or sweet corn tamales, made of ground grain mixed with milk or butter, stuffed with refried beans, cheese or pork, and covered by sheets of corn.

In other places they prefer tamales balls, given this name due to its spherical shape, and made only from corn dough or cob leaves with no other ingredients.

Sometimes this variation replaceds tortillas during Easter, when the corn mills stop work out of respect for the Catholic faith, but with the expansion of industrial corn flour, they are beginning to disappear along with the places where they are made.

Sweet or sugar tamales, which are usually filled with grapes, prunes and pineapple-based jams, are also increasingly rare these days.

The word Tamale comes from Náhuatl Tamalli, which means to be rolled up in, and although in essence the original method of preparing this dish still remains, in the era of globalization there’s no shortage of alternatives.

Without giving up the tradition completely, businesses proliferate through the preparation of gigantic proportions of fortified corn dough, and even use aluminium foil or plastic to distinguish their packaging.

‘Christmas in Costa Rica smells like tamales’ says the owner of one of the oldest business in the sector, with over 57 years of experience, which produces up to three thousand tamales a day.

But the tamale is always there, not only in Costa Rica, but also in other Latin American countries, each with its own cultural variations and traditions. PL

(Translated by Sophie Maling –

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