On Sunday, December 15, 2013, a small group of expats met at a house in San Isidro for tamale cooking lessons. Our teachers were the wonderful women of the Asociacion de Mujeres Artesanas de San Isidro de Atenas (AMASIA) or the Atenas San Isidro Craftswomen Association.
At 9:00 am, we met at Carmen Campos' house, decorated outside for Christmas, complete with Christmas tree and a large creche. The house has two kitchens, one of which is a large work area at the back of the house, with a wood burning stove. One door led to an outdoor area that was filled with orchids. This kitchen is where the enormous cooking pots are kept, hanging on the walls, and other supplies on shelves and in cabinets.
We were out in the country and the houses get their water from wells, I believe. Repairs were being done and there was no water in the house we were in. No problem - everyone grabbed a container and we walked down the road to a neighbor's house and filled up there. Eventually the water came back on and we were in business.
All the supplies were laid out on two large work tables. In Costa Rica, tamales consist of corn masa, or dough, stuffed with beans, pork or other fillings. They are cooked in banana leaves but I was told they are not regular banana or plantain leaves. The leaves are cleaned and then wafted over a fire to soften them.
Making tamales is not fast, and a lot of work is involved. An entire family can be involved in making Christmas tamales, sometimes several hundred or more. The custom is to offer friends and families tamales as a personal gift. It's a wonderful present when you realize how much work and time went into making them and they taste delicious.
The wood in the stove was burning and we set to work chopping onions, garlic, red bell peppers, carrots, etc. The masa (dough) was prepared and this step is a long one. There was so much activity going on that I am not sure if I have the sequences right. Rice was cooking in a rice cooker, along with different spices, and then I believe all of it was put in a blender, and finally mixed in with the masa.
Partway through the proceedings, Costa Rican coffee was made for us in the traditional way, using a chorreador ("little bag"), a device in which hot water seeps slowly through coffee grounds held in the cloth filter which is mounted on a wooden stand and the coffee drips into a container. It was wonderful, strong and hot. The ladies had also baked fresh bread. I can't think of a better combination.
Meat had been prepared for the filling and it was so good. The gravy was delicious. Eventually, it was time to make our tamales. The banana leaves had been cut into squares, one about 10x10" and the other about 16"x16". The large square goes on the bottom and the small one on top with the ribs running in opposite directions. A small ball of masa is placed in the center of the small leaf, then we pressed in a piece of pork, a piece of red pepper, carrot, etc. You can also add prunes, chickpeas, green olives, peas - whatever you like.
Then we folded the leaves over the filling - and there is a special method of doing this so the contents are safely sealed inside. A second tamale was prepared the same way and the two tied together with string. Two tamales tied together are known as a piña. When they were all wrapped, into two huge pots the tamales went. Wood was constantly being added to the fire. Uncut banana leaves were used as lids for the pots. What a good idea I thought.
A thunderstorm came up while the tamales were cooking and it was nice watching the torrential rain while safe and dry in a cozy kitchen with the burning wood snapping and crackling. The Ticas were so much fun, lots of laughing. I couldn't understand a whole lot but easy to figure out what is going on.
Each of us went home with four tamales (or two piñas). What a wonderful way to learn some Costa Rican culture and thank you, ladies, for inviting us.