“Where are we going?” I say, as my Costa Rican partner, M, herds me into the car behind her mum and sister.
“It’s Christmas! So we’re going to pick up the corn mash.”
Well, this is new. Back in Britain, my usual pre-Christmas traditions including panicky last-minute shopping, delivering Christmas cards through letterboxes in the driving rain, meeting friends in the street while out shopping and allowing myself to be easily persuaded into going for a drink (this is often a prelude to “panicky last-minute shopping”) - and of course, on the day itself, eating too much and laying in front of the TV stunned and groaning while the Queen gives her yearly festive speech.
And nowhere in my experience is “stuffing a few dozen pots and pans into a car and driving through a Costa Rican suburb in search of pulverised corn.”
The car must contain every big pan in both households (ours & M’s mum’s), representing tens of gallons of storage space. Surely this is overkill. Are we collecting for a village? Is this a Santa-like tradition, The Distributing Of The Corn Mash? But no - apparently it’s just for close family, and I’m getting worried. Is corn mash at Christmas the equivalent of British turkey leftovers, meaning we’re going to be having this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next fortnight?
Our destination is a small shop I’ve walked past a dozen times, never very busy. Today it’s heaving, with a queue going out the door and down the street. And everyone is carrying pans, either whopping enormous ones or stacks of smaller ones. We’re all after the same thing - and it’s in high demand.
From within the shop comes a wet grinding sound, a rhythmical, mechanical chomping. The people who emerge with their pans are carrying them differently - they’re clearly a lot heavier now. I peek inside one as it passes. It’s half-filled with a sticky yellow mixture that…doesn’t look entirely palatable?
“This is so Christmassy!” M says.
It’s a marvel how nostalgic that phrase is, and yet so meaningless in a relative sense. Suggest Christmas to the average Brit and we’ll mumble something about snow, wooly hats, gloves, roast chestnuts and mince pies. But to a Costa Rican, it means cloudless blue skies, it means the blazing sunshine that’s requiring a very different sort of hat - and it means tamales.
If you’re spending any amount of time in Central America (as we’re doing in April next year), it won’t matter if it’s Christmas or not - you’re going to have the Mesoamerican wrapped dish called a tamale. Or more accurately a tamal: that extra “e” got tacked on by an English-speaking world that was slow to understand how that Spanish “-es” works.
It’s a meal that will probably stick in your memory for three reasons. The first is the manner in which it arrives, wrapped in its own biodegradable packaging. At my first sight of a Christmas tamal, held together with string, I thought “Ah! They wrap their Christmas presents in huge leaves. That’s lovely.” But no - that’s the meal, and that’s how it’s cooked, steamed surprisingly quickly inside a couple of enormous green banana (plantain) leaves..
When you cut the string and open it up, you find out what variety of tamales you’re eating today. When I open mine on Christmas Day, I already know - because I helped make them a couple of weeks before. There’s of course the corn mash, which we carted out of that shop pan by pan - the end product of the nixtamalization of ground maize (soaking & cooking in limewater, then hulling using the big machine at the bag. Alongside it there are the side-ingredients: a lump of meat, a scatter of vegetables and herbs & spices, a few spoonfuls of rice. When cooked, the flavours run together in the most delicious of ways, like a stew, but much firmer and without that brothy greasiness…
That unique taste is the second way you’ll remember it. And I really, really hope everyone gets to experience the third - which is being part of a family tamal-making factory.
The day after we collected our newly-filled pans of mash from that shop, we assembled at the back of M’s family home, where half a dozen long tables had been set up. Then the cars started arriving. It’s a thing where every branch of the family turns up and takes their place in the tamales production line.
(As a dangerously inept newcomer, I’m given the job of wiping the dust off each of the banana leaves, piled high in papery stacks at the beginning of the line.)
One person pops an olive into the middle of each mix as it’s slid along on its base of banana leaf. The next spoons the rice on. The next puts two pieces of carrot in - not three, not one, but two. It’s a scientific process and if anyone gets their portions wrong they’ll run out before all the tamales are made, shamefully, in front of the whole family. This is high stakes food production. (I’m suddenly glad they put me on leaf-wiping duty.)
You need a lot of ingredients because you need a lot of tamales. The entire process takes an afternoon of hard work, until there are hundreds of the things piled up & ready to go. They’re immediately packed back into cars and transferred into freezers in various homes - mostly for Christmas, with a few left over for those days when you just can’t be bothered to cook, making the tamal perhaps the only TV dinner that predates the television.
So - I get it now. And I feel it. Making and eating tamales is the Costa Rican equivalent of a British plate of turkey and all the trimmings, groaning with a pile of roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, Yorkshire puddings & gravy. It’s that Christmassy - and maybe even more so, because wouldn’t it be an enjoyable chaos for everyone to be in the kitchen beforehand, helping put the meal together, instead of just bickering about politics in front of the TV? Maybe there’s something in this Pura Vida thing after all…
Join Wheel & Anchor in April 2023 on an 18-day voyage as we sail on a brand new vessel from the port of Valparaiso, Chile all the way north to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, stopping in Peru, Ecuador and Panama enroute. More details here.
Leave a comment!