Archive for the ‘Costa Rica’ Category


My mother-in-law’s family, Quirós Sánchez, makes the best tamales and I should know, I have eaten many but none compare to her’s or her sisters’ tamales.   Traditionally before La Navidad women in Costa Rica will be busy making them for the holiday.  In the stores and markets the ingredients go up and up in price and bags of dried corn kernels (that the women cook and have ground) are seen everywhere.  My mother-in-law, Doña Irene, would be busy in her kitchen or mine (since I had a nice long counter) making them.  That is how I learned to make them.

First you cook the pork loin with herbs (I used an herb mix that I buy at a local spice shop), fresh garlic, salt and white pepper—add water to cover.  I use a crockpot and cook for 8 hours.  I then steam cook the rice in some of the meat broth (traditionally it’s white rice that is first sautéed in lard and then steamed—I used a rice mix that I buy at a local Japanese market and added wild rice).  At the same time that I cook the rice I also boil potatoes, cut up the bell peppers in strips, lightly cook the peas (I used frozen small sweet peas), place a couple of cups of corn masa in a large mixing bowl and add salt, white pepper, and Spanish paprika to the masa.  Once the rice and potatoes are done I use the meat broth to mix up the masa and add the mashed potatoes to it and mix well.  The first time that I made tamales on my own they were REALLY bland.  I added salt to taste; the trick is to add A LOT of salt.  The tamales will be boiled right after constructing them and then they will be boiled again before eating them so add more salt than usual.  For these tamales I used a smoked sea salt.

Traditionally the women exchange their tamales (like a cookie exchange) so the ones that Doña Irene made would be traded with the neighbors’.  This is where I ended up tasting different tamales and never liked any except the ones made by Doña Irene or her sisters (oh and also a friend, Doña Clemen).  I did learn a lot about what NOT to do especially never, I mean NEVER, add canned green olives to them.  I love olives but with this combination it really destroys the taste.

Growing up in San Diego, I never really liked tamales.  They were so spicy hot that I couldn’t eat them and even when someone made some that were not so spicy, the taste really never appealed to me.  Costa Rican tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of cornhusk.  What a difference in taste!  I buy banana leaves in a local super market and I get them when I see them then keep them in the freezer till I am ready for them.  I have also found them in local markets that cater to the Latino community.  I use two packs and can make about 30.  They will need to be cleaned with a towel.  I do a quick wipe to get rid of excess water and then I wipe each leaf down before I begin to place the masa on it.


Sometimes the leaves split so I will use a small piece as a “Band-Aid” with the leaf grains crossed.


I might have the sequence off but this is the order of the filling that I used:

Large serving spoon of masa/potato mix, tablespoon of rice, a few peas, a couple of strips of bell pepper (I was using the small ones, traditionally there is only one strip of bell pepper), and some of the meat.  Wrap it up and make another one, wrap it up and place the two tamales “sides that open” together and tie (I used kitchen twine).  I then place them in the basket of a large pot (I used a spaghetti pot).  Once the basket is full I place it in the pot that has some water in it that has already boiled.  I add more hot water to cover the tamales and I boil them for about 15 minutes (this is the part I was never really sure about—how long to boil them the first time—Doña Irene boiled them on an open fire in the backyard and seemed to know when to remove them.)  Once they are cooled, I place them in a large plastic bag and put this in the refrigerator.  I keep them there for a day or two and then place the bag of tamales in the freezer.  It takes about 5 days for the flavors to meld together.  The banana leaves give it a wonderful kind of smoky flavor.


           Costa Rican Tamales a la Gringa.

  (Just click the link above to see a video of the process of making the tamales)

After 5 days or for us, New Year’s Day, I will boil the frozen or defrosted tamales again until they are hot (about 10 minutes for defrosted).  Remove from the water and let them drain a bit.  Remove the twine and place one on a plate and unwrap.  In Costa Rica we would add a little Salsa Lizano to it but it is difficult to find here in the U.S. and VERY expensive to import so we use Worchester Sauce instead.

Now—with fresh made coffee, chayotes picadas, and a tomato and cheese salad, the Costa Rican Tamale—a la Gringa is ready to enjoy!



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October is the month of terror.  In the U.S. children look forward to Halloween:  The Night where they can dress up and be someone else as they go to parties and walk their neighborhoods, door to door, asking for tricks or treats.  In Latin America November 1st, El Dia de los Muertos, is the day families honor their ancestors with festivals, music, food, and flowers.

October is also the month of stories about ghosts, ghouls, and creatures of the night.  We love the safety of a good scary tale that creates chills of fear under the skin.  Many of these stories, though, were not meant as Halloween tales.  They were teaching tales:  this will happen to you if you do not behave (La Cegua), or watch out for strangers you meet in the forest (Mister Fox, The Grandmother’s Tale), or tales of greed (Sunday Seven).  Witches, ghouls, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and any other critters of our imagination can make us shriek and jump in delightful fear around October or around a campfire.  We love a good frightful tale.

While living in Costa Rica I met some new critters of the night: the siren, La Cegua, who goes after men who should not be out at night drinking and womanizing; the three witches in Sunday Seven who give riches to the one who helped them and, well, other, not so pleasant things to the greedy.  Some of these stories reflect the Costa Rican culture from the changes that were made to tales from Europe and Japan while others reflect the originality of the Costa Rican culture.  Whether re-adapted or original these are tales that were born on the very soil of Costa Rica.

One tale, the one that sent chills of fear through my husband, Guillermo, when he was a child, is El Cadejo (kaw day ho).

There are two versions of how El Cadejo became.  The first is about a priest who did something so terrible that he was cursed and became El Cadejo.  The second is about a boy who would place an ox yoke under his bed sheet and sneak out of his house at night to party, return home in the early hours, and sleep all day in the shade of a tree or bush.  His father, not knowing that he was sneaking out at night, would find him sleeping instead of working the farm.  He finally became so angry that he cursed his son:   “Echado y a cuatro patas seguirás por los siglos de los siglos, amén.” (“You will continue lying down on all your four legs for centuries and centuries, amen.”) And so the boy turned into El Cadejo.

El Cadejo is a dog:  a big black dog from Hell.  His fur is hard, oily, and bristly, not what one would want to touch.  His eyes reflect the fires of hell and around his neck is a thick chain (hence the name El Cadejo) that weighs him down as he drags it along with a clankety, clankety, clank…  He appears before those who have done something wrong as a warning.  He stands there with those flaming eyes staring at the accused—a stare that sends icy chills through the veins.

Happy Halloween!

Clankety, clankety, clank…

Drawing of El Cadejo by Geannina Gutiérrez, ©2012

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