The Many Names for Tamales
by Lenny Karpman
Now that Christmas and the New Year have passed, my neighbors here in Costa Rica are putting away lights, ornaments, Styrofoam snowmen, straw reindeer and faux pine trees. For the family Sunday mid-day meal many are dining on tamales.
Tamales are stuffed cakes of corn dough, masa harina, wrapped and steamed. In Costa Rica, they are an art form as well as a common food. Tamale making is a seasonal family affair. Multiple generations of family cooks assemble pork or chicken, vegetables – mostly carrots and peas, and herb fillings artistically in rectangular packets of freshly made cornmeal, wrap them in folded plantain leaves and tie them decoratively with reeds or twine. They are traditionally given to neighbors at Christmas. It is an economical and egalitarian way for friends to exchange similar thoughtful gifts without the adversarial “can you top this” attitude that pervades gift giving in some other cultures.
In Colombia and Venezuela, they are called hallacas and may contain raisins or olive pieces. In Mexico, they are wrapped in dry corn- husks. Cuban tamales are fluffier and spicy. When the same ingredients are layered and baked without a wrapper, the result is tamale pie. Tex-Mex tamale pie usually is laced with red and green chili peppers.
Tico (Costa Rican) tamales freeze well. They are most often tied together in groups of four. Tamales are steamed or simmered before eating, but they can go from freezer to table via the microwave in about two minutes and rekindle holiday warm fuzzy feelings and a delicious sense of community. Buen provecho and a happy and healthy 2014.