Foodies Delight: Costa Rica Tamales Recipe (The Christmas Traditional Food)

tamales wrapped in corn leaf on top a wooden plate
Tamales are a popular dish in Costa Rica and several other countries of Central America and Latin America, suitable for most occasions as an appetizer, snack, or even a meal!

The holiday season is a time for cherished traditions, and in Costa Rica, one of the most beloved customs is making and sharing tamales. These delectable parcels of joy have been a part of the country’s cultural fabric for centuries, especially during Christmas. 

In this blog, we’ll embark on a journey to uncover the rich history, cultural significance, and art of crafting Costa Rican tamales, a culinary tradition that embodies the spirit of togetherness.

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Roots of Costa Rican Tamales

  • Costa Rican tamales are much more than just a festive dish; they are a link to the nation’s cultural roots and history. 
  • Their origins can be traced back to pre-Columbian times, when indigenous communities, including the Bribri, Cabécar, and Boruca, prepared a similar dish using corn dough filled with various ingredients. 
  • They wrapped these delicacies in banana leaves and steamed them, just as they are prepared today.

Significance of Tamales in Costa Rican Culture

Tamales play a pivotal role in Costa Rican culture, especially during the holiday season. These delicious morsels are a symbol of unity and family bonding. Preparing tamales is a communal activity where friends and family gather to share stories, laughter, and secrets while crafting these exquisite parcels.

It’s a time when generations come together to uphold tradition and pass down the art of making tamales to the younger members of the family.

Perfect Name of Costa Rican Tamales

An open tamal stuffed with green beans, meat and topped with sauce on a plantain leaf
There are many variations of tamales, some of them are just the ‘masa’ blended with some spices or stuffed with several ingredients!
  • In Costa Rica, tamales are known as “Tamales Ticos.” The term “Tico” is a colloquial nickname for Costa Ricans, often used with affection. 
  • So when you hear “Tamales Ticos,” you know you’re in for a genuine Costa Rican experience. 
  • These tamales are a source of national pride and a culinary heritage that the Ticos are passionate about preserving.

📖 Recommended Reading: If you’re looking for more useful information, check out Best of Costa Rican Cuisine: 13 of Their Yummy Dishes

Ingredients of Costa Rican Tamales

Tamales Ticos are a medley of flavors and textures. To craft these culinary gems, you’ll need:

Step One: Preparing the Tamale Dough

  • In a cooking pot, combine the following ingredients:
  • 5 pounds of Masa (corn dough)
  • 1 cup concentrated pork broth
  • 1 cup concentrated chicken broth
  • 4 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 1 tablespoon of Worcester Sauce
  • 6 strips of bacon, cooked and crumbled, along with the rendered fat
  • 2 cups of cooked and mashed potatoes
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste
  • Mix all the ingredients thoroughly to ensure even distribution.
  • Place the pot on low heat and stir constantly to prevent sticking.
  • Remove the pot from the heat as soon as the mixture begins to boil.

Step Two: Preparing the Tamale Filling

Now, let’s move on to getting the banana leaves ready for assembling the delicious tamales. Here’s what you’ll need for each tamale:

Ingredients (per tamale)

  • A small portion of cooked pork
  • A small portion of cooked chicken
  • 5 green beans
  • 1 green olive
  • 5 raisins
  • A small cooked carrot
  • 5 capers
  • 1 strip of bell pepper
  • 5 garbanzo beans
  • 1 teaspoon of cooked rice seasoned with achiote (paprika)


  • Cooking pot with boiling water.
  • Lay out two pieces of banana leaf, each about a foot square. Place about three tablespoons of tamale dough in the center of the leaves.
  • Into the dough, press in all of the above ingredients, creating a flavorful filling.
  • Wrap up the banana leaves around the filling to form a rectangular shape, somewhat like a brick. Place two tamales together, ensuring the seams face inward, and secure them by tying them with string or twine. This bundle is known as a “Pina.”
  • Place the tied-up tamales into the pot of hot, boiling water and cook for about 30 minutes until they are thoroughly cooked.

Step Three: Serving the Tamales

Tamales are at their best when enjoyed warm, right after the cooking process. However, if you need to reheat them, simply immerse them in hot water for approximately 10 minutes before serving.

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Costa Rican vs. Mexican Tamales

Costa Rican and Mexican tamales (usually consumed in Mexico) are both delicious traditional dishes, but they have some notable differences in terms of ingredients, preparation, and flavors.

Here’s a comparison of Costa Rican tamales and Mexican tamales:

Costa Rican Tamales:

Ingredients: Costa Rican tamales typically use corn masa (dough) mixed with various ingredients such as rice, potatoes, vegetables, and meats like pork and chicken. The masa is seasoned with achiote (annatto), which gives it a distinctive red color and flavor.

Filling: The filling in Costa Rican tamales may include a combination of ingredients like cooked pork, chicken, vegetables, olives, capers, and raisins. It is wrapped in banana leaves and tied with string, forming a rectangular shape known as “piña.”

Cooking Method: Costa Rican tamales are usually steamed or boiled for several hours, resulting in a tender and flavorful dish.

Flavor Profile: Costa Rican tamales are known for their slightly sweet and savory flavor, with the influence of achiote and the combination of the various ingredients creating a unique taste.

Mexican Tamales:

Ingredients: Mexican tamales are made with corn masa as well, but the type and preparation of masa can vary by region. The masa can be mixed with lard or vegetable shortening and seasoned with ingredients like chili peppers, cumin, and garlic.

Filling: Mexican tamales come in a wide variety of fillings, including beef, chicken, pork, cheese, vegetables, and even sweet fillings like chocolate or fruit. The diversity of fillings is influenced by the regional and cultural variations in Mexico.

Cooking Method: Mexican tamales are often wrapped in corn husks and steamed. The cooking time can vary depending on the size and type of tamale, but it is usually shorter than that of Costa Rican tamales.

Flavor Profile: Mexican tamales have a broad range of flavors, from mild and savory to spicy, depending on the type of filling and regional influence. The seasoning and spiciness can vary significantly.

In short, while both Costa Rican and Mexican tamales share the use of corn masa and steaming as a cooking method, they have distinct differences in terms of flavor profiles, ingredients, and regional variations. 

Costa Rican tamales are known for their subtly sweet and savory flavor, enhanced by the use of achiote seasoning. In contrast, Mexican tamales present a wide spectrum of flavors, reflecting the diverse culinary traditions of Mexico.


Travel Tip

Recommended Guide 🗺️

The best place to try tamales and other dishes is at local eateries, make sure you check out this post: SODA in Costa Rica: Local Restaurant and Local Cuisine

Joy of Sharing Tamales

Costa Rican tamales are not meant to be devoured alone; they are a dish meant for sharing. During Christmas, it’s a common sight to see tamales being exchanged among friends and neighbors as a gesture of goodwill and to strengthen community bonds.

This act of sharing symbolizes the spirit of the holiday season.

Experience the joy of sharing tamales with the local community in Costa Rica. Book your tickets now to savor this cultural delight.

Beyond Christmas: Tamales Ticos Throughout the Year

While Costa Rican tamales are synonymous with Christmas, you can enjoy them throughout the year. They are a beloved treat that’s cherished on birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.

Many Costa Rican families also take part in a delightful tradition called “Tamaleadas,” where they gather to prepare tamales and enjoy them together even outside the holiday season.

The Evolution of Tamales Ticos

As with any culinary tradition, tamales in Costa Rica have evolved over the years. While the basic recipe remains the same, regional variations have emerged.

In the coastal regions, for example, you might find tamales made with coconut milk, giving them a distinctive coastal flair. This diversity showcases the creativity and adaptability of this traditional dish.

Why are tamales important in Costa Rica?

Tamales are important in Costa Rica because they hold cultural significance and are a traditional dish often associated with celebrations and special occasions. They bring people together and showcase Costa Rican culinary heritage.


In Costa Rica, tamales aren’t just a dish; they are a celebration of culture, history, and togetherness. The act of making tamales and sharing them is a way for families and communities to stay connected with their roots and create lasting memories.

So, the next time you savor a Costa Rican tamale, remember that you’re not just tasting delicious flavors, but also a slice of history and culture wrapped in a banana leaf. It’s a taste of tradition and togetherness that truly embodies the holiday spirit.

Disclosure: This blog post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission for any purchases made through the links. Your trust is important to us, and we ensure that all products or services we recommend meet or exceed our editorial standards.

Last Updated on December 15, 2023

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