Panamanian Tamales

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Yesterday we learned how to make real Panamanian tamales. We were making a small batch, so we started with only 50 cobs of fresh corn (mazorcas).

The procedure for slicing the kernels off the cob is meticulous and efficient. Ricardo taught us how to do this, using patience and persistence, and with practice we finally got it, mostly. The kernels are then ground, in our case the grinding was assisted by a motorized pulley strapped to a bicycle wheel. A little local cilantro (culantro) was added while the corn was being ground.

Next step was to saute the sliced onions with salsa and to prepare the leaves for wrapping. The inner wrapper is a cultivated plantain (platano chino) leaf, which is soft as fine flannel material. These leaves are tied together and boiled. The outer wrapper is a bijao leaf and need not be boiled although if you have time, you can pass it through boiling water to soften it a bit.

The next step is to get the corn batter (masa) just right. First, our teacher, Maritza, added a “secret ingredient” to the masa. It’s a mixture of onions, garlic, and culantro sauteed in oil. Then for the consistency, she added some fresh milk and a touch of sugar. Salt to taste.

The preparation of individual tamales begins by smearing a little oil from the sauteed onions onto the inner leaf. Add one full ladle of the masa. Top with previously prepared baked and chopped chicken sauteed with salsa, add some onions and sprinkle with chopped pepper.

When the ingredients are all in place, wrap the tamale first with the platano leaf and then with the bijao leaf. Tie, and place in boiling water, seam side down. Boil for an hour or an hour and a half.

The result: 14 tamales!

About Mary

I spent a few years at sea, and I never came back from a cruise without having learned something new about the ocean or what lived in it. After retiring to Panama, I began to learn something new about the tropical savanna ecosystem nearly every day I stepped outside. I focused on plants, those marvelous signs of life. Now I'm in my second retirement, living in Sicily. I'm leaving my plant studies online for those who have found them useful.
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6 Responses to Panamanian Tamales

  1. What a great culinary adventure! Loved the slideshow & story! Do they really have to boil for an hour & a half?

  2. Mary says:

    Ah, yes. Possibly it is necessary to boil for that long because by the time the tamales go into the kettle everyone is worn out from the work. During that hour and a half you get to sit down, have a cup of coffee, eat a bite of something, and visit. Worth every minute of boiling. 🙂

  3. lifeshighway says:

    I bet the tamales were delicious!. I loved the motorized pulley, very ingenious.

    • Mary says:

      Well, thanks, lifeshighway. The tamales were indeed delicious, and filling, and yes, I loved the device for automating the grinding, too. I had more pictures of it than of the cooking, truth to tell.

  4. juan says:

    The only thing I didnt like is the mushiness of the Panamanian tamale. All other cultures steam their tamales.

    • Mary says:

      You’re the pro, and I agree in general with your assessment. The people in this video, however, make a nice firm tamale. They’re the best I’ve tasted in Panama. The difference may be in the leaves used for wrapping. They use “plantano chino” leaves for the inner wrap and bijao leaves for the outer. I don’t know whether this practice is common.

      Thanks so much for your comment.


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