PURISCAL, Costa Rica — "Ayayay no! That pot's going to burn!" Isabel Arias Rojas shrieks as she sprints out of the back door onto the patio where her wood-oven stove is firing up a huge pot of corn masa. Smoke spews from the mix, just one of the potfuls meant to stuff 200 tamales and feed as many as 50. It is the only near-moment of disaster in Arias' flawless operation. Her daughter and niece stand close by as she briskly snatches the pot.
The family "tamalada" is saved.
It's the dry season in Costa Rica, and the sun is beating on palm fronds and metallic roofs in one of the first scorchers after an unrelenting rainy season in this hilly village, about an hour's bus ride west of the capital, San Jose. The women and girls of the Arias family are gathered on the back patio, their hair tied beneath bandanas, ready to initiate an assembly line-style production called the tamalada, a Costa Rican tradition, especially during holidays. (One of the wonders of the Spanish language: You can take almost any food name and add an "-ada" at the end, and usually, a party will ensue.)
This family's tamales start with ground corn and broth cooked into a thick batter, later to greet globs of masa accented with paprika, then garlicky bits of pork, carrots, potatos, sweet peppers and cilantro (which Costa Ricans call "culantro"). The women wrap this gloppy goodness neatly in a banana leaf, tying the bundle with string, readying the tamal to cook in boiling water for about 45 minutes.
Rather than each focus on one specific task, the women here rotate from stirring batter to chopping, loading to tying. Throughout, the 47-year-old Arias is at the helm, and the suave voice of a bolero singer serenades the women from the stereo in the living room.
Some families prefer chicken to pork. Others add something sweet to the garlicky mix, such as raisins or prunes. Even olives sometimes pop up in more elaborate mixtures. On sweets and olives, Arias holds the line: "No, that's not a traditional tamal."
But unorthodox tamales are making headway in some kitchens. Costa Rican chef Marco Gonzalez says he likes to add a dash of more "exotic" flavors to his tamales. "Personally, I like to make them with a combination of starches such as yucca and corn and spice them quite heavily towards Mexican flavor, or even more exotic, as Indian or Thai flavor, mixed in there and with a large presence of veggies," he says.
Gonzalez admits to dabbling with a vegetarian version, using soy protein instead of pork or other meat — adaptations that purists such as Arias might frown upon. The traditional tamalada would include the slaughtering of a pig or chicken, but for Arias' production, the pork was purchased at the village market.
Gonzalez, who has studied nutrition, says tamales are "fairly nutritious," especially when compared with some of Ticos other favorite foods, such as the fried fatty pork cubes called chicharrones, which Arias also cooks up around the holidays.
Still, the tamal is no treat for those watching their carbs. "For the carb-phobics," Gonzalez says, "I am afraid they do contain quite a good amount of starch, though on the good side it is either from corn masa or fresh corn and usually not very refined, so they add some carbs but they are actually better carbs than wheat or rice."
Tamal variants are eaten throughout Central America, but feature different fillings. Nicaragua's tamals — with peas, rice and raisins — are among the most commonly known, Gonzalez explains.
Mexico's popular version differs in that it's wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. And, to be sure, Costa Rica's lacks the Mexican kick that might make you say, "hot tamale!" Instead, Ticos pour on their beloved Salsa Lizano, an omnipresent brown, Worcestershire-like concoction used to flavor dishes at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But for Arias, the leaf is also key.
"The banana leaf is essential to the flavor," Arias says. The thick green wrapping, however, is inedible. Arias' 21-year-old dimpled niece, Yensy Arias Mora, makes a joke about eating the wrapping. "What did the gringo say when he ate the tamal?" she asks. "Tastes great but the lettuce was too tough."
Marcos Elizondo Arias, 24, Isabel's son, pours a glass of "chicha," an alcoholic beverage homemade from sugarcane, and tells how he and his grandfather went out the day before with a machete to fetch the banana leaves. In the rambling countryside of Puriscal, banana trees abound. After the leaves are gathered, they are laid briefly over a flame, which makes them easier to work with.
Yensy's 9-year-old sister Kimberline hurries over to the table with a wet rag to clean off a warm leaf, as she has done with piles of other tamal wrappings. And so, the tamales factory resumes. In shifts, two generations churn out a feast.
Six-year-old Axel Marin Arias keeps an eye on the busy cooks, sneaking a finger in the masa occasionally, and studying the whole procedure. He claps his hands in amazement for the women at work, and says, "The best thing about tamales is it brings the family together."
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