Cultural Events and Traditions
Tamales - a Pre-Columbian Treat that Caught on
Tamales are as much a part of Christmas in Costa Rica as the Nativity scene near the door (portal) or the parade of children dresses as the Holy Family and shepherds, who go from door to door asking if there's room in the inn (posada).
But tamales were around long before Christmas came to Central America, because they were a part of the Pre-Columbian diet. From the Aztecs in Mexico down to the Incas in Peru, they were eaten as part of ordinary meals, or fancied up for festivals.
Tamales differed from place to place but they were all made from ground corn with a vegetable and meat filling. Aztec tamales used wild turkey, pheasant or quail, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and sweet peppers for filling and cooked them in wrapped cornhusks.
Down in Peru, Inca tamales had more of a bite because the Incas added hot peppers and probably guinea pig pork. In Costa Rica the meat and fat came from deer, tepeizcuintles (a type of big guinea pig), seafood, nuts or coconuts, and they were wrapped in banana leaves.
When the Spanish conquistadors came to the new world they were conquered by the taste of tamal, but added their own style: olives, plums, garbanzo beans, pork ends pork fat to flavor the masa. There is no one-way to make a tamal. Even within Costa Rica, the recipe varies from one coast to the other, and each family has its own recipe.
In early times and even into more recent times, making Christmas tamales began by slaughtering a pig and grinding the corn. Now it's easier.
Ingredients can be bought, ready to cook up. Even banana leaves are found in the markets. Also, for reasons of both health and economy, pork is no longer popular in tamales.
What is still a custom is the whole family working together; young and old, male and female, everyone gets together the day before Christmas to make a tamalada of 100 or more tamales – enough for themselves and guests over the holidays and as giveaways.
They are made on an assembly line around the table. The first person wipes off the leaves and passes them on for the masa, the filling, a slice of hard-boiled egg, a piece of meat. The leaves are then folded and tied. At one family's house the process begins with 5-year old Eduardo and ends with 85-year-old grandpa.
It's a job that keeps the family together for at least one day over the Christmas holidays.