A couple of days before Christmas we were invited to participate in the age old tradition of making tamales. For several weeks we had been hearing talk of making tamales and people had been asking us what we would do since tamales are traditionally made with meat. María, our host mom, had already talked with us about the million and a half options we would have. We could make them with a bunch of vegetables, with hearts of palm, with beans, with soy meat; she was very concerned about us having tamales that we could eat and was thus very resourceful in coming up with ways that we could participate in one of the most important parts of the Christmas holiday. In the end we made them the traditional way, just substituting the meat with refried beans.
In reality making tamales is a day long event. There is masa to make, banana leaves to smoke and cut (unless you buy them pre-cut), vegetables to prepare, meat (or beans) to cook, and string to cut. Then you need to put them all together and boil/steam them for about an hour and fifteen minutes (depending on how many you are making). We only ended up participating in the second to last step - putting all of the parts together.
Rafa, our host dad, walked us through the steps and he and his sister kept a watchful eye on us throughout the entire process. First we had to layer two banana leaves, one small one diagonally on top of a slightly larger one. Then we had to put some masa in the middle and spread it out a little. The masa was followed by rice, beans, green bean, carrot, red pepper, peas, and a sprig of cilantro. Once all of the ingredients were placed on the leaves, it was time to roll them up. Sometimes we had too many ingredients in one tamal making it difficult to roll, but with a little help from Rafa's sister, everything came together smoothly. Once two packets were prepared they were tied together tightly to keep all of the yummy goodness from escaping during the cooking process.
Needless to say, tamales will be coming home with us (or at least the knowledge of how to make them!) We are excited about sharing this new skill with our families when we return state side and are perhaps even more excited about eating them again next Christmas! New Christmas tradition, check!
The other tradition that we will be brining back home with us is a family tradition of María. She learned it from her mom, who learned it from her mom, who learned it from an aunt, and who knows how many generations before her did the same.
On New Year's Eve day, a plate is prepared for the coming year. On it you will find rice, beans, salt, bread and money. Then, on New Year's Day all of the items are placed in a small pouch and hung on the back of the door. It is hoped that in return your family will have plenty to eat and enough money to live happily and healthfully.
At the end of the year, the old food is thrown out and the money is given to a local church or charity to help those who were not as fortunate. It is a way to give back and to look forward.
We plan to add our own twist to this tradition when we bring it to our home, and that will be to add a locket with photos of us in it, so as to bless the year with family, friendship, and love.
The traditions may be small, but then, most are. We look at it as a way of brining our Costa Rican life home with us and of always having the memories of our 'family' and friends here.