Costa Rican Christmas Tamales

Every good Tico eats tamales for Christmas (Navidad) and this year I not only ate them, I learned how to make them. I also discovered why Costa Ricans only make tamales once a year – the labor intensive process takes an entire day and is exhausting! But the tamales are scrumptious and I’m going to teach you how to make them or at least make you tired from reading about it, yet jealous that I have 80 in my house right now, waiting to be devoured for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Prep Work

First, you begin by cooking what could be two separate meals in themselves:

1. Pork Soup (Sopa de Cerdo): water, 5 kilos of big pork chunks, several whole celery, several quartered red bell peppers, rosemary, oregano, cilantro, bay leaves, thyme. Cook all that in your massive stewpot (because everyone has a ridiculously large pot laying around).

pork soup (sopa de cerdo)

2. Saffron Rice (Arroz con Achiote): rice, saffron, finely diced red bell peppers and celery, chopped cilantro.

saffron rice

While those bad boys are cooking, you prep and precook all the veggies:

4 kilos of potatoes cut in half, boiled and peeled

A big bowl (6-8 cups) each of sliced carrots, tiny green beans, garbanzo beans, sweet peas, and sliced red bell peppers (don’t cook these!).

The next step is preparing the leaves that you will wrap the tamales in – plantain leaves (hojas de platano). They are sold in packages by the kilo, pre-smoked and pre-burned. Your job is to cut them up and clean them.

plantain leaf

First begin by removing the strong vein along the edge.

cutting plantains

Then cut the leaves into smaller pieces, alternating between two separate sizes – one about 15 inches long and the other about 10 inches long.

Then clean those cut leafies with a rag – just lightly scrub the funk off each side. But rapido! rapido! – by this time the sun is starting to set and you are ready to be done.

cleaning plantain leaves

After the soup is cooked, the veggies are prepped, and the leaves have been cut and cleaned, it is time to move on to the final step in the prep work – preparing the masa mix.

Masa de maíz is dried ground corn and you can purchase it in Costa Rica pre-ground and pre-moistened, but you will have to grind it yourself if you live in the States. You can find the dried corn in Mexican tiendas (along with the hojas de platano…except they are probably banana leaves instead).

So gather up your masa (3 kilos), cooked and peeled potatoes, and set up a food processor next to the massive stewpot.

masa and potatoes

Start by blending together potatoes with the veggies from the pork soup and one coffee mug full of pork soup broth. Dump into giant mixing bowl and repeat process until all the potatoes are blended with all the veggies from the pork soup.

potatoes, veggies, and pork soup broth in food processor

beginnings of papas mix

Now add all the masa to the blended potatoes. Also throw in two giant handfuls of leftover meat grease from your local butcher shop. Mix really well with your hands.

mixing the masa and papas

masa mix

Run the masa mix through the blender once again, adding salt and chicken stock or bouillon (de caldo o consumme) to taste. Also add more pork broth if needed for consistency – you want it to be about that of creamy mashed potatoes. Empty all of this into yet another giant bowl.

Collect the pork out of the pork soup and cut it into large bite size pieces. Now gather all the ingredients and set up your workstation for assembling the tamales. It helps if you only set out a smaller, manageable portion of each ingredient (maybe 1/4 or 1/5 of what is in each giant bowl).

Tamale workstation

Assembling the Tamales

Take a small plantain leaf and place it on top of a big plantain leaf. Plop a large spoonful of the masa mix in the center of the smaller leaf.

Spooning rice into tamale

On top of the masa mix, place a spoonful of rice, a piece of meat, a few garbanzos, a few peas, a pepper slice or two, a green bean or two, and 2-3 carrots.

Inner content of tamale before cooking

Fold the tamale. Raise the edges up lengthwise and fold them over twice like you would a paper bag lunch. Then lightly flatten, while you fold the left and right sides over the center. You end up with a nice looking little tamale package.

wrapping tamales

folded tamale

Take two of these tamale packages and tie them together with natural jute string to make an even cuter tamale package. You can also start singing ♫ “green leafy packages, tied up with string, these are a few of my favorite things.” ♫

Place all the tamales aside and when the last one is tied, they are ready to cook.


Drop them into the humungous stewpot full of pork broth, add more water if needed, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, start the timer for 30 minutes (keep covered).

putting the tamales in the pot

boiling tamales

After 30 minutes of boiling, disconnect the heat, but it is okay to leave the tamales inside to cool off. Now you are ready for the next step.

Eat the Tamales!

open tamale


  1. says

    I was thinking the same thing today! I haven’t had them from all over the world, but out of the few varieties I have tried, Costa Rican tamales are definitely superior.
    …we managed to eat all 80 of them. They were suppose to last through the new year!

    • says

      LOL no! But don’t feel bad, I asked the same thing my first time. And there is even a related joke:
      So one Christmas, there is a Gringo in town and a nice Tico family invites him over to share Christmas with them. They feed him tamales and later that evening ask him how he enjoyed them. He responds “They were delicious, but I really didn’t care for the lettuce.”

    • says

      It’s neat to see how each family does it a little bit different. There should be some sort of tamale festival with a cook-off, and the audience gets to judge, mmm. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, John!

  2. says

    Wow- those look amazing. Thanks so much for including the recipe. I don’t think I can quite replicate these in Berlin, but I may try :)

  3. Diane says

    Hola Erin! I’ve yet to comment, but I think I’ve read almost all of your entries by now.. reason being that I, a 21-year-old chica from the US, am planning on making the move to CR by myself here in November or January. There’s a start date in either month for the TEFL school I plan on attending, but I can’t decide which would be a better time! Going in Nov. means spending Christmas in CR, away from my family. January saves that trouble and allows more time for saving $.. but I’m so excited- I want to leave as soon as possible! Did you spend the holidays with a family you met there? I’m planning on staying with a host family for the 4 weeks of the program, but it ends before Christmas.

    I’m not really sure what I’m asking you here.. ha, sorry for my rambles. I guess I’m just wondering when you would choose to come if you were me, and how you’ve enjoyed December in paradise!:)

    Muchas gracias,


    • Erin Morris says

      :) Thanks for the comment.
      Christmas in paradise is fun, but only if you have good friends and family to share it with. January, February, March… all those months are as dry and gorgeous as Christmas will be, so you won’t miss anything by coming down at the later date. Well, you’ll miss the hordes of tourists. Plus you can use that extra money to travel, so you can see more of the country.
      But you might be able to work out a deal to stay with your host family through Christmas and then you get a family to share with and tamales!!! I love tamales. You should see if they’ll let you stay longer before you make up your mind. If you are planning on looking for a job here after the course, it would be wiser to start looking in Dec/Jan.

      Which TEFL course are you taking if you don’t mind me asking?

  4. Diane says

    Thanks for replying! :)

    I’m definitely wanting to teach and live there for as long as possible (I’ve done enough research to decide that I think I can handle it.) Is it accurate that most teacher-hiring is done around January? Meaning that I’d have the best chance of landing a job if I have a TEFL by the end of Dec, rather than the beginning of Feb? As nice as missing the hoards of tourists sounds, I’ll need to find work pronto!

    Good advice on seeing if the family will let me stay through Christmas- beforehand! The tamales look great!! Though I have to admit I get tired just thinking about the process. :p

    As for the TEFL course, I’m deciding between Máximo Nivel (which I was unsure of at first, but only read great things about on eslcafe & lonely planet), and Intesol Costa Rica. If you have opinions about either of these or could suggest one you know is legit, I’d be forever thankful!


    • Erin Morris says

      Teacher hiring is done at the latest by January for the really nice schools (e.g., international schools). Those jobs are really hard to get though so don’t be upset if you can’t get one. In fact, living here requires you be flexible all the time about everything, so try to keep that in mind.
      THe good news is that language institutions hire year-round due to high turnover rates and you can practically walk off the boat and get a job at one of them.
      I don’t know anything about those TEFL courses, but it sounds like you have done your research… :)

  5. Mariela says

    I’m the opposite. I’m a Costa Rican living in the US. This Christmas I couldn’t really visited my family back home. I was hoping to be able to make some tamales, the Costa Rican ones anyway. This seems like a lot of work, but I’ll definitely give it a try. If not, I can always go back and get the real deal.
    Thanks for sharing. :)

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