Tamale time! (or how to make a Costa Rican tamal dish pie, step by step)

Hi, everyone! Confession time: I am cheating a little bit on this one. Imagine… I had this one just sitting on the bench. Part of this is a tutorial I wrote a while ago for my cousing Gracie and is only now seeing the light of day. And by day I mean the Internet. Lol.

This week I had a bunch of tamal related conversations, for some reason. I suppose that when you cook a lot, people kinda-sorta assume you cook anything and  everything. And I love it! In any case, I was asked quite a few tamal related questions and it was a little weird because this is not a traditional time for people to be talking or making tamales… like, say, Christmas. So, I decided it was a sign and I would do my part. Like the time Kim Kardashian came to me in a dream and suggested I wear my hair down less frequently that month… braids are in now anyway, right?

So, to tamal lore! Non foodies beware, I will be getting a bit technical.

Tamales (in case you are unfortunate enough not to know them yet) are a de-li-cious and relatively complex dish traditionally prepared and served in Costa Rica and other Central American countries around Christmas, New Year´s and other holidays or special occasions. Every country has their own spin on them. A globally known version uses corn husks as a wrapper, and has very little filling. We are talking about a different kind. Here in CR they are made mostly of corn masa, which is wrapped and cooked into plantain (banana) leaves. They are filled with either pork, chicken or both, and also some veggies ranging from carrots and peas to pieces of potato and even prunes and olives. There are also tamales of the mudo (mute) variety, these don´t usually include meat and are usually filled with refried beans and are about half the size of the traditional ones.

Once assembled, tamales are tied together in pairs with string, as a way of giving them a steadier shape , and making sure that the masa and ingredients don´t leak from it. They are then boiled in water, allowed to cool and then reheated before serving. Because of how many ingredients go into tamales, the tamal making process, or tamaleada is usually an extended family activity, in which the tasks are democratically divided among all members to create an efficient production line. The cooks on the family will usually be in charge of mixing and dressing the masa, preparing the meats and filling, and overall getting the flavors right before assembly. For tamales to be really good, all the individual components need to be spot on yummy. Someone will clean and cut the banana leaves, others will chop and prepare the veggies and others will be part of the assembly line, adding all ingredients before finally yet other family members tie and secure the
tamales. The boiling time and cooling process needs to be monitored as well. Because of the labor intensive nature of the process, it is rare to see a tamaleada in which less than- at least- 100 piñas (pairs) of tamales are made. It wouldn´t be worth it otherwise, really.

I love tamales as much as the next tico, if not more. But, alas, I have found that my family does not really do well in the heat of the tamaleada ( I love you, guys, but you know I am speaking the truth). Positions might be deserted before the task is complete, family members will be lost in action to distractions such as watching TV or going to bed. Shiny objects, even. Needless to say, this affects tamal quality and seriously dampens the holiday mood… I just couldn’t have that. Tamaleadas were cancelled in our household indefinitely. So, what to do when craving the delicious taste and tender texture of a tamal, I wondered. That´s when the tamal pie popped into my brain as the perfect alternative: quicker, way easier and just as yummy. This yields 12 – 15 portions.

Let´s do it!

What you´ll need:

 Enough plantain leaves to cover the inside and sides of a tempered glass baking dish, as well as the top of the pie (about 6)

For the Masa:

 4 cups “masa harina”, powdered corn flour (Harina de Maíz)
 4 cups chicken or pork broth, of half of each, low on the salt level
 3 tablespoons salt
 1 cup lard, chicharrón fat, bacon fat or similar (this is key)
 half a stick of butter
 2 cups mashed potatoes
 1 cup finely grated onion
 1 tablespoon minced garlic
 1 tablespoon salsa Lizano (you can get it online)
 a dash Tabasco

For the Filling:

 2 tablespoons oil
 2 medium onions, diced
 4 garlics, minced or pressed
 1 tablespoon achiote paste
 1 pound pork chuck, cubed
 1 pound cubed chicken meat, pref. dark (boneless thigh is best)
 24 pitted green olives, sliced
 15 prunes, chopped
 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
 1 cup diced carrots
 1 cup frozen peas
 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
 1 tablespoon Salsa Lizano
 Dash of tabasco
 3 – 4 tablespoons masa powder, for thickning
 Optional: 1 small can of chickpeas, drained


In a searing pan, heat the oil until it shimmers, and add the cubed pork, salted and peppered, and the garlic. Let it turn a nice golden brown, stirring often, drain any rendered fat and set aside (that fat can be used for the masa). In the same pan, with a bit of oil, cristalize the onions, add the chicken, salted and peppered, cook about half way through, then add the carrots, olives, prunes, salsa lizano, tabasco, thyme and crushed tomatoes and let it sweat until the chicken is tender but done. Add the pork and the frozen peas and stir. Add the dry masa to give it some hold. Move to a bigger pot if necessary. Cook on medium low for a bit more. Check the seasoning, and reserve to use as filling.

This filling is twice as yummy as it looks :o9

This filling is twice as yummy as it looks :o9


In a bowl, mix the dry masa with the warm broth and the melted or softened lard. In a nonstick pot, melt the butter and cristalize the onions and garlic in it. Add the mashed potatoes and mix in the masa mixture, also the rest of the ingredients, cooking on low heat until the dough is thoroughly combined and separates from the sides of the pot, not too thick like mashed potatoes but not runny either. Taste it for seasoning, it should be savory and delicate but not bland. Never ever bland.

Oh, yeah, baby! A good tamal begins with gooood masa

Oh, yeah, baby! A good tamal begins with gooood masa

To prepare the dish, lightly grease the inside of a baking dish (about 13×9×3”) , and clean and cut the plantain leaves to fit it. Tip: Dampening the leaves with warm water will help making them more pliable. Place the leaves inside it, allowing some length of the leaves go over the sides of the
pan. It should look like this:

Hojas de lado

Pour a bit less than half the dough in it, spread it nice and evenly to create the first layer. Put the filling over the layer of masa.

Fist layer plus filling

Spread the filling evenly as well, and then pour the remaining masa over it. Decorate with slices of red pepper and sprigs of cilantro. You can get creative and do whatever you want, this is an old school inspired design of my own. I love it, all kitschy.

Go crazy or kitschy with the decoration :o)

Go crazy or kitschy with the decoration :o)

Cover the top with the remaining plantain leaves, it should be covered completely so the flavors are sealed in. Cover the top of the dish with aluminum foil, also making sure it is properly sealed.

I´m ready to go in the oven!

I´m ready to go in the oven!

Bake in a water bath for 1 hour and 15 minutes at 350 F. Prepare yourself for the delicious smell that will be coming out of the oven around a half hour into the baking.


A lot of the charm a tamal has comes not only from the yummy flavor but from the delicate texture it should have. This is a little similar to a lasagna in that you shouldn´t be serving it straight out of the oven or it will be all wobbly. It needs to rest for 15 to 25 minutes minimum.  If your crowd has any self restraint, a good tip is to allow the pie to cool completely, still covered by the plantain leaves, and then reheat in the oven in a water bath for 15 minutes. That way, it will be a tiny bit less tender but the pieces will hold their shape much better when serving. Either way, it´s really good. Delicioso!!!

I´d love it if you let me know if you try it and how you like it, XOXO,


P.S. Please excuse that I don´t have a picture of the finished tamal pie… we had company that day and that´s just how fast it went!