In Costa Rica, two kinds of tamales are considered typical: tamal asado, which is stuffed, and tamal mudo (mute tamale), which has no stuffing. Traditionally, these tamales are exclusive to special occasions such as Christmas and Holy Week, because of the careful preparation and length of time required.
Therefore, the notion of “making a few tamales” is virtually inconceivable. Instead, Costa Rican families by tradition devote their entire weekend to producing tamales in a mass-production manner. This is a cherished time when all family members come together to engage in teamwork, happy conversation and catching up with each other’s lives.
Everyone works dutifully on each specific task involved in the process, such as preparing the banana leaves, the filling ingredients, and the masa (dough). The first day is spent making the fillings of the masa. The following day, family members of all ages line up to spread the masa on the leaves, then fill and wrap into tamales. The next step is to place the tamales in a steamer for about four hours. Then they are ready to enjoy! The tamales may be eaten plain or with Salsa Lizano (a Costa Rican Worcestershire-style sauce, also commonly used on gallo pinto). Homemade bread and rompope (Costa Rican eggnog) make the meal complete.
Not surprising, this family cooking party is called a tamalada. The process of making the tamales is just as important as eating them. Recipes and “grandma’s secrets” are passed on from family member to family member, generation to generation. There is no “right” way of doing it. Everyone has a secret ingredient and a helpful tip to offer, making tamales a tradition that continues evolving.
That may be just as well, considering that the first Meso-American tamales were stuffed with pretty much anything available: frog, fish, iguana, flamingo, rabbit, ox, goat or wild boar meat … vegetarian ingredients like eggs, squash, mushroom, potato, honey, seeds and nuts … and even sweet tamales with berries, pumpkin and cinnamon.
Nowadays, let’s be honest — we are not that creative. Although vegetarian tamales have become more common as the trend has spread worldwide, tamales typically contain some kind of carnita (meat). Today’s tamale is usually stuffed with pork, and sometimes chicken or beef, and also garlic, sweet or hot peppers, green beans, onions, rice and potatoes. These tamales are generally not spicy, but perhaps seasoned with a bit of cumin, achiote and black pepper.
Tamales may be eaten at any time of the day, most often accompanied by a warm coffee or a sweet aguadulce (traditional sugar cane drink).