Something special happens every December here in the Yakima Valley—Leda makes tamales. These are a bit different than the corn husks filled with masa and meats that are steamed to perfection and eaten with zeal around these here parts. These are Costa Rican tamales, made a bit differently but in the same spirit. Most notably, Ticos use banana leaves to wrap their masa, which is made with potato in addition to corn, and they are boiled instead of steamed. Leda Saenz grew up in Costa Rica, where tamales were what happened every December.
For many years, she watched her Abuelita Carmen make the preparations, crafting dozens and dozens of the delicious packets, and relished the month long saturation of everything tamal. But she never made them herself. After moving to the United States in 1999, missing home and craving connection, she decided she would carry on the tradition. At first with a written recipe and the memory of her Abuelita’s hands, but after having a few holiday seasons under her belt, she could whip up 100 tamales with nothing but lots of time and a sturdy apron.
It’s just a matter of getting all the different components ready. The banana leaves are the most labor intensive as they have to be rinsed, cut down and have the ribs removed. Chicken and pork are both used in each of her tamales and are fully cooked beforehand, in addition to rice, carrots, red peppers, garbanzo beans, raisins, and cilantro. She said that she remembers the rich folks using prunes and olives instead of the raisins and beans growing up, but that she prefers the raisins and beans these days. Once everything is ready, all she has to do is assemble.
Watching her, she sets several banana leaves in a row along her counter. A handful of masa, a bit of rice, chicken, pork, one carrot slice, one pepper slice, a couple of beans, a couple of raisins, a sprig of cilantro and it’s all folded up carefully and tied with kitchen string in packets of two and boiled. It can take several hours to completely wrap everything. Aileen and I marveled as she went into the zone and prepared row after row of them. Systematically and with precision.
Were they good? Absolutely. No dining experience in Costa Rica is complete without a bottle of Salsa Lizano nearby, and of course Leda had a large bottle handy. (A brownish green sauce of indescribable flavor—smokey? tangy? subtly sweet?—bottles of which are ubiquitous in CR and used on nearly everything). Opening the steamy banana leaf to reveal this glorious tamale made with love right here in the Yakima Valley by a true Tica and doused in Lizano was blissful.
Traditions are very connective. Who we are and where we come from are marvelously represented as we do what has been done so many times before and what will be done so many times after. December is ripe with these traditions as memories are forged and reinforced around the holidays year after year. Muchas gracias, Leda, for sharing this piece of Costa Rica with us!