A family in the neighborhood makes nacatamales every Friday and they are wonderful!

A nacatamale is a traditional dish of Nicaragua and Honduras. This family makes two kinds, one with masa (corn) and pork, the other with rice and chicken. Like tamales in other countries (which are a bit different),  they are a lot of work. They are often made for holiday gatherings and many family members participate in the preparation.

I thought it would be great if I could learn to make these nacatamales so I asked if I could come and help, and they graciously agreed. So, Friday morning I showed up at the house. Julia and her daughter Amarelis had already done some of the work. Bundles of plantain leaves had been boiled to soften them, and they were preparing the masa.

I am not exactly sure about the corn and masa part. It was explained that the corn is cooked with “cal”, and from my research I understand that the corn is cooked with lye or wood ash which is very alkaline and changes the properties of the corn.  Then it must be boiled again with clean water. One can also buy corn flour that has already been treated in this way and which is recommended for nacatamales by many recipes found on line.

When I arrived they were mixing the dough, adding Maggi flavored bullion powder, oil, vinegar flavored with onions, and milk until it was the flavor and consistency they wanted, a bit firmer than mashed potatoes. They also had all the ingredients ready – sliced onions, tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, pieces of pork soaking in flavored vinegar, rice soaking in water, and springs of herba buena or mint.

Now it was time to assemble the nacatamales. First, plantain leaves are selected. Then a large scoop of masa is put on the leaf (smooth side up), followed by a piece of meat, a bit of onion, pepper, tomato, potato, a bit of the soaked rice, a sprig of mint, and a bit of the juice from the meat. Then the whole thing is wrapped up in the leaves and tied with strips of “bark” from the plantain trees like a nice little package. One must be careful to have no sharp bones sticking up to make a hole in the leaves, and don’t tear the leaves while you are putting the nacatamales together.

After showing me how it was done a couple times, it was my turn and I wrapped the rest of the nacatamales.

After a while we had a pretty good pile of nacatamales ready to cook. This is very low season for tourists so sales are down, so they were only  making the masa and pork nacatamales today. But still, they estimated we had made about 50 of them.

As far as I can tell there are no cooking facilities in the house. All cooking is done outdoors over a wood fire. It is more work but there is nothing like the flavor of food cooked over wood. It didn’t take Julia any time at all though to get a fire going.

When we were done, nothing went to waste. Leaf scraps were fed to the pigs and ducks, and the leftover rice to the chickens. Everything else was put away for another day.

I think this must have been something new for all of us! Amarelis took photos of the gringa cooking traditional Nicaraguan food to post on facebook (and I now have a new Facebook friend), and as you can see, I also took a number of photos of my new experience.  Not only do I know a lot more about nacatamales, we had a wonderful morning of conversation and getting to know each other which I enjoyed every bit as much as the cooking.


About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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19 Responses to Nacatamales!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Those look so good! WTG on you making one. Your having so much fun you might not give that person back their house. LOL That’ll teach them to go out of town and leave you to it. 🙂


  2. Mike says:

    Looks fantastic. I have been following your journey around the island and have enjoyed it immensely. I have been talking up Nicaragua but my cousin insists on Panama to visit and potentialy relocate. They are concerned about the government and safety but it looks as though it doesn’t really enter your daily life on the island at least. I have also enjoyed your photo journey as well, it does show the lifestyle differences quite clearly. We have stalled cars on the road and you see stalled piggies. I have to assume the pigs are not just pets….. I also don’t see a lot of dogs and cats around either. Pets are probably an expensive luxury to most……
    Keep up the good work and thanks from us…..


    • We relocated to Panama and have been very happy with our decision. I think because it is more similar to the lives we know, it is a good place to start and also, the government and economy are better there. Once you are more acclimated it is easy to visit other countries and see how you feel.
      Life on the island is definitely different and feels removed from the hustle and bustle that is part of our lives, even in Panama. A traffic jam here is when a bus needs to get through and there is a herd of cows in the road. We have seen a few cats, a lot of dogs, and lots of livestock. I probably didn’t think to photograph dogs because they are nothing new to me.
      I asked the nacatamale ladies about their pigs and they said they couldn’t kill them for meat. It would make them too sad. But I would think people would find some way to profit from their livestock at least some of the time. People here are often quite poor and have to use every resource they have.
      Thanks so much! Glad you are enjoying the blog.


  3. Bravo Mi Amiga!! That’s my friend! Making new friends wherever she goes! I’m really loving watching your adventure! Cheers!


  4. Anonymous says:

    Please write & keep the recipe as you WILL be expected to make them for all of us 😃


  5. oldsalt1942 says:

    Almost every one of my neighbors here in Boqueron have a little casita out back where they cook over an open fire for some things, especially tamales. Day to day cooking, though, is done inside with on a gas stove.


    • I think a lot of people here only cook outside with wood. I would like to have that option, but I’ll keep my gas stove inside too, please. These people work harder than I want to just to manage daily needs.


  6. Haha! Yes. We want our house back, but you are welcome to stay in the casita anytime. The nacatamales look yummy! Did you save us some? lol


  7. I like your new title from your new friend’s Facebook post ….
    ‘beautiful foreign Kris’
    so charming!


  8. indacampo says:

    I think that you are discovering many of the things that we did when we visited Nicaragua on our “fact finding| tour. It is a beautiful country but the people definitely live a much harder life than the people of Panama and we weren’t quite sure how we would do with that. Like I’ve said before the infrastructure is way behind Panama. You are right about being acclimated now. It makes one more adventurous that’s for sure. 🙂

    Good job amiga! You look like you’re enjoying yourselves.


    • I know it is a step down, at least by US standards of measurement, but I am starting to see it as different rather than worse, and the further I get from everything I was told the happier I am. I am still sorting it all out in my head but this experience has given me a lot to think about as far as what makes a person happy.


      • indacampo says:

        And your posts have made me want to re visit to see if my thoughts have changed. I’m still very happy that we chose to be where we are but curious. 🙂 Gracias amiga!


        • As we have talked about, a lot depends on the person. I think we can be happy most anywhere if the basics are covered and the people are nice. Others may need things that are more familiar. For me, I like these people, the lake, the simple life. If you can go to Rivas or Managua for the occasional thing you can’t find on the island, I could do this. We don’t plan to move but it doesn’t hurt to have a plan B in mind.

          Liked by 1 person

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