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