Nacatamal is a big Central American version of the Mexican tamale. A nacatamal always contain maize dough, rice, potatoes, meat and vegetables but the exact ingredients vary from family the family. Below you will find a basic recipe that you can use for further experimentation. You can for instance substitute or complement the pork with pieces of chicken, add more spices and peppers, or include Mediterranean imports like raisins, capers, garlic and olives.
In Honduras nacatamales are usually prepared for special occasions only, like Christmas and wedding celebrations, but in Nicaragua they are a common as breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the year.
Masa de harina – not your everyday corn flour
Nactamales are made from masa or masa de harina. Masa de harina is a type of corn flour, but you can’t substitute with ordinary corn meal or corn flour since they aren’t the same.
Masa is made by drying field corn (maize) and then treating it in a solution of ash and water or slake lime (calcium hydroxide, not the fruit!). The alkaline solution loosens the hulls from the kernels and makes the corn softer, but even more importantly it starts a chemical reaction that makes it possible for the human body to absorb niacin, also known as vitamin B3, from corn. When Europeans arrived to the Americas they happily accepted corn as a staple food but didn’t adopt the ancient practice of treating the corn with ash or lime. Soon, a disease known as pellagra was widespread among poor European immigrants and their descendants. Pellagra is caused by chronic lack of vitamin B3 and is classically described by “the four D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. Eventually, doctors began to wonder why Native Americans could sustain themselves on virtually nothing but corn products through periods when other food was scarce, and the true value of this seemingly superfluous practice was uncovered.
In the Aztec language Nahuatl, the word for maize that has undergone this type of treatment is nixtamalli or nextamalli, where nextli stands for “ashes” and tamalli for “unformed corn dough.” The word has been adopted into Mexican Spanish as nixtamal and the process is known in English as nixtamalization. If you purchase packaged tortillas or similar products made from prepared maize they will be labelled maiz nixtamalizado (or the English phrase “corn treated with lime“).
To make masa de harina, you start by making masa. Maize is soaked in an alkaline solution and then washed. While the corn is still wet, it is ground into a dough – the masa. You make masa de harina but letting the masa dry and then powdering it.
In Latin American markets, you can usually purchase fresh masa sold by the pound. If you don’t have a Latin American market or shop nearby, you can use masa de harina instead. Another alternative that works for most Nicaraguan recipes is to purchase tortillas made from maiz nixtamalizado and ground them up to a paste with some water; this is a common practice throughout Central America since tortillas are easier to store than fresh masa.
A dozen nacatamals
- 6 cups of masa de harina (a type of corn flour, see above)
- 1 cup of lard or shortening
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- ½ cup of sour orange juice (see below)
- 4-5 cups of chicken stock or broth
How to make the dough
- Mix masa de harina, lard / shortening, and salt together in a bowl. The easiest way of doing this is to use an electric mixer, but the traditional way is of course to do it by hand. It is important to fully incorporate the fat into the flour; the end result should have a mealy texture. For the novice, doing two or three small batches may be easier than trying to do the entire batch at once.
- Mix in the sour orange juice and enough chicken stock or broth to make a soft, moist dough. It should just be a tad firmer than mashed potatoes. Knead for several minutes to make the dough fluffier.
- Cover the bowl and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
- ¾ cup of rice
- 3 pounds of pork but
- Salt and pepper
- ½ pound of potato
- 1 onion
- 2 sweet peppers
- 2 tomatoes
- 1 bunch of mint (to taste)
How to make the filling
- Soak the rice in warm water for half an hour.
- Cube the pork butt and season it with salt and pepper.
- Peel and slice the potatoes and onion into ¼ inch rounds
- Slice the sweet peppers and tomatoes into ¼ inch rounds.
- Drain the rice.
What you need to assemble a nacatamal
- 1 banana leaf for each nacatamal (this recipe yields about a dozen)
- 1 piece of 10×10 inch aluminium foil for each nacatamal
It is possible to give the nacatamal a personal touch by substituting the banana leaves for other large leaves. If you want to try to use a smaller leaf then you can do that as well. In this case you will have to place the small leaves in between the stuffing and the banana leaf. By using herbs this way you can get a very interesting nacatamal that has a different taste in the center compared to the area that was closer to the wrap. You are only limited by your imagination. An example of this is a small village that i visited in Northern Nicaragua were they used tropical almond leaves in their nacatamales. They do this to include the medical properties of almond leaves in their daily diet.
How to assemble nacatamals
- Remove the hard spine from the banana leaves and cut the leaves into 10×10 inch rectangles.
- Lay out a banana leaf with the smooth side up.
- Place one cup of dough in the centre of the leaf, wet your hands, and spread out the dough.
- Place roughly ½ cup of pork on top of the dough.
- Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of rice over the pork, add 1-2 slices of potato and finish off with 1-2 pieces of onion, 1-2 pieces of pepper, and a slice of tomato. Place a few mint leaves on top.
- Carefully fold the top edge of the leaf down over the filling and bring the bottom edge up over the top to make a sort of envelope. Fold both sides in and you’ll have a small rectangular package. If you warp too tightly, the filling will squeeze its way out when the nacatamal is steamed.
- Place the nacatamal with the seam side down on a piece of aluminium foil and wrap it up tightly, just like you did with the banana leaf.
- Repeat step 2-7 until you have a dozen nacatamales.
Before the advent of aluminium foil, nacatamales were just tied together with strings. You can still see this done by skilled Nicaraguan housewives and chefs, but if this is your first time preparing nacatamales I suggest you start out with aluminium foil.
What you need to steam nacatamales
You’ll need a large pot or several small ones. Nacatamales take up quite a lot of space and you need to steam them for 3-4 hours so having to do one batch after another because your pot is too small will be rather time consuming, even by Nicaraguan standards. In Nica, it is a tamalera (tamale steamer) is commonly used, a big galvanized steamer where the inside bottom is raised with steam slats.
How to steam nacatamales
- If you don’t have a tamalera with steam slats, place a rack over the bottom of your pot or toss in wadded pieces of aluminium. The important thing is to hold the nacatamales mostly out of the water.
- Add 2-3 inches of water to the pot.
- Place the nacatamales in the pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Put on a tight fitting lid, turn down the heat and leave the nacatamales to be steamed for 3-4 hours. Check the pot regularly and, if necessary, add more water to keep it from boiling dry.
When the nacatamales are ready, take off the aluminium wrapping and serve them right away. They should be served with the banana leaf unopened; each dinner guest opens his or her banana leaf on her own. And no, you’re not supposed to eat the banana leaf.
Sour orange juice?
Sour oranges – naranja agria – are common in Latin American cooking. They come from the citrus tree Citrus aurantium. In the English language, the fruit is known as sour orange, bitter orange, bigarade orange, Seville orange, or marmalade orange. If you fail to find Citrus aurantium you can substitute it with a mix of 4 parts lime juice, 2 parts orange juice, 2 parts lemon juice, and a pinch of lemon rind.
Where do I find banana leaves?
Banana leaves are commonly sold in shops specializing in Asian or Latin American food. They can also be ordered on line, e.g. on e-bay. If all else fails, use corn husks instead.