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Traditional Christmas Tamales in Costa Rica

December is a spectacular month to be vacationing in Costa Rica – a time of holiday celebrations, sensational horse parades, family gatherings, seasonal fiestas and delicious Christmas foods. Nearly every home and building is adorned with twinkling lights, elaborate nativity scenes and beautifully-decorated Cypress trees and wreaths. Traveling in Costa Rica during this time of year is a culturally enriching experience, and a chance to sample some of the country’s typical Christmas cuisine.

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Traditional Costa Rica tradition is the Christmas Tamale
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Tamales – a time-honored holiday food among Costa Rican families

Tamales are a bit labor-intensive to make, but the results are so worth it! These tasty little pockets of goodness are usually made over a period of several days, as family members pitch in to complete various stages. Made of corn meal and filled with a savory combination of shredded pork, beef, or chicken combined with carrots, potatoes, celery, onions, bell peppers or peas – tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and boiled until ready.  Every family has their own unique recipe and shares them as gifts with loved ones and friends. Look for them in grocery stores everywhere, or try your hand at home with this traditional recipe.

Costa Rican tamale ingredients

  • 3 cups of corn flour
  • 3 pounds. of roast pork or chicken breast, shredded
  • 1/4 pound pork lard (substitute with vegetable oil for low fat)
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 1 cup of finely chopped white onion
  • 2 pounds of potatoes, cubed
  • 1 pound sweet peppers, finely sliced
  • 1 bunch of celery, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
  • Extra carrots, celery and onion for meat stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Plantain or banana leaves
The tamale is a holiday food amongst Costa Rican Families
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Sautee all diced vegetables except potatoes in a pan with lard (or vegetable oil) over medium heat until onions are transparent. Take off heat and add salt, pepper and the cilantro.

Boil the potatoes and your choice of chicken or pork in meat stock. Make your stock by adding extra celery, onion and carrots with a pinch of salt and pepper to two cups of water. Simmer for at least two hours. When the meat is tender and cooked, remove and shred.

Add the remaining meat stock (puree in blender if vegetables are still intact) to one cup heavy cream and mix with corn flour. The corn dough should be thick and supple, but not sticky.

In the center of your plantain leaves, put about two tablespoons of the corn flour mixture,  topped by a tablespoon of chopped potatoes, several pieces of shredded meat, and a hefty dollop of the cooked vegetables. Fold the leaf gently into a rectangle shape and tie with a string. Boil the tamales in water for approximately one hour. Unwrap the leaf and serve with hot sauce or sour cream, or enjoy them just as is. Tamales are perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner!