International Recipes and Cooking Around the World

Making Nacatamales

Plate with a nacatamal

Image Creative Commons by Blue Sonicboy

Nicaragua: Cuisine and Recipes is one of the most popular pages on Whats4Eats, regularly placing in the Top-10-Most-Viewed list. So I decided last weekend to beef up the page a little and give people more of what they were looking for. My first task -- how to make nacatamales.

All over the Latin New World, masa -- dried corn treated with lye and ground into a moist, flavorful dough -- is wrapped in little packages of corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed, boiled and baked. Mexicans have tamales. Venezuelans make hallacas. Peruvians love their humitas.

Nicaraguans have the nacatamal. Nacatamales are similar to your average Mexican tamal, but Nicaraguans fill them with a specific blend of meat and vegetables and wrap them in banana leaves instead of corn husks.

Setting out to make a batch, I first made sure I had a free afternoon. Learning how to make nacatamales was going to take some time. I started out with the masa. There's a great place in City to buy fresh masa, but I didn't want to make the long trip. Instead I made my own using masa harina flour. I figured that's what most people in the U.S. would have access to anyway.

I have a cholesterol problem, so I committed sacrilege and used a mixture of butter and oil instead of lard. The dough turned out just fine, but I really would have preferred lard for the flavor and a desired pleasant greasiness.

A hallmark of nacatamal masa is the addition of sour orange (naranja agria) juice to give it a slight tang. Since I didn't have any sour oranges, I used the juice of one regular orange and two limes. This mixture nicely matched the taste of true sour orange juice.

Assembly was pleasantly easy. I just prepped all the filling ingredients, gathered them on a large table and got to work. Putting the nacatamales together was as simple as putting some masa in the middle of a banana leaf, stacking the filling ingredients on the masa and folding it all up into a package. I can definitely see an assembly line of family and friends making the task easier for large batches. But my batch was relatively small, and I was able to put them all together myself in about 20 minutes.

I have a great big canning pot that was large enough to hold all of the nacatamales. Putting the canning rack in the bottom helped keep them out of the water, but I added some wadded up aluminum foil to fill in the spaces. Of course, a tamalera would've been ideal. Once they were steaming, I just kicked back and relaxed, checking every once in a while to make sure the water didn't boil dry.

And how did they turn out? My nacatamales were tender, moist and oh-so-tasty. The long cooking had infused the packages with the soft savor of the banana leaves and rendered the pork meltingly tender. I had added a prune and two green olives to each nacatamal, and these gave a pleasant sweet-sour touch. I served them with a sprinkling of Tapatio sauce and a simple ensalada de repollo. The family ate it up and asked for more.

And the bonus? There were plenty of leftovers, which I froze right in their aluminum and banana leaf wrappers. I'm looking forward to the perfect packaged lunch at work!