Unwrap steamy parcels of banana leaves to reveal tender maize-dough surrounding a flavour-packed sweet potato and black bean filling in these vegan tamales, our take on the popular Costa Rican snack.
Country Number 40: Costa Rica
I’m not gonna lie, having done a wee bit of research into it, Costa Rica is sounding pretty close to a slice of paradise. Located in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is a beautiful, mountainous and rainforest-covered country where one can find everything from beaches to volcanoes. It has one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world: despite making up only 0.03% of the world’s surface, it is home to 5% of its biodiversity. With such wonderful natural beauty, it’s pretty cool that Costa Rica is very environmentally-minded. Over a quarter of the country legally-protected conservation land. The combination of the country’s environmentalism and natural beauty are in part responsible for its booming eco-tourism.
A brief overview on Costa Rican Politics
In addition to its environment, Costa Rica is notable for its democratic, stable and peaceful form of government. There is no standing army in Costa Rica (pretty awesome if you ask me), it has one of the highest rates of literacy (9/10 of the population) in the Western Hemisphere, and is known as the centre of intellectual life in Central America. These features have led to its capital, San José, acting as the base for several NGOs and pro-democracy organisations. As such, it has received considerable foreign investment, and is now a services and technology based industry (surpassing its formerly agricultural industry).
Of course, like anywhere on earth (including New Zealand, which has somehow garnered a similar reputation for perfection despite having its own problems) Costa Rica has its issues. One of the largest issues it faces seems to be racial inequality. 4/5 of the population is of European descent, with mestizos (mixed indigenous and European ancestry) making up nearly 1/5. The country’s smaller African-descended population has faced systemic racism, with Costa Rica’s version of apartheid only repealed in 1949. As such, the black community still faces economic and social barricades today.
Additionally, less than 1% of the population are indigenous, which is a dramatic drop considering that there were an estimated 400,000 indigenous people living in the Costa Rica region before Spanish conquest. Most of the indigenous population today is assimilated, although a small minority still lives in legally-protected reserves. However, these reserves have poor fertility, and as a consequence the local indigenous people reside on subsistence agriculture. This leaves them as some of the country’s most poverty-stricken people.
History of Costa Rican Cuisine
Like many Central American countries, Costa Rican cuisine relies heavily on freshly sourced tropical fruit and veges, rice and black beans. Maize has played a huge part in Costa Rican cuisine from pre-Columbian times. Tamales were introduced to Central America by the Aztecs, and were and still are served at times of celebration, particularly around what is now Christmas. Originally they were eaten around December in recognition of the sun god, as the corn filling was reminiscent of the golden rays of the sun. After the Spanish conquest, they were still eaten around the same time but became associated with Christmas festivities.
Costa Rican tamales differ in some ways from their Mexican counterparts. For one they are less spicy, as Costa Rican cuisine tends to be more mild. Additionally, while Mexican tamales (at least in central and northern Mexico) are cooked in corn husks, Costa Rican tamales are cooked in banana leaves.
Popular Costa Rican Vegetarian Dishes
- Gallo Pinto – a breakfast dish consisting of rice and black beans with capsicum, coriander, onions and Salsa Lizano.
- Tamales – banana leaf steamed packages of maize meal stuffed with assorted veges and meat (can avoid meat to make vege).
- Arroz con leche – a delicately flavoured rice pudding with lemon zest and cinnamon.
- Sopa negra – black bean soup with capsicum, onion, coriander, tomato, spices, boiled egg and often Tabasco.
- Patacones – twice deep-fried flattened plantains, often served salted with salsa or black bean dip as a snack.
Vegetarian rating of Costa Rican Cuisine:
Making Sweet Potato and Black Bean Vegan Tamales– Costa Rica
Tamales are quite a labour intensive dish, mostly because there are various parts to it. It isn’t super complicated, but the lengthiness is why it is often traditional to make these with a group of people (aside from the communal aspect of course… people are great…). Many hands make and all. As there are multiple steps, make sure to give yourself ample time to prepare everything. The steaming of the tamales alone (once they are prepared) takes an hour, so give yourself at least 2 ½ hours to complete everything (probably more).
For our vegan tamales, we filled them with sweet potato, corn and black beans. This is not strictly traditional but it is a wonderfully tasty vegetarian alternative (if you don’t have meat, the OG could be a little bland).
The traditions behind tamales
It’s pretty cool to find out that there is a lot of tradition behind tamales consumption at Christmas. They are cooked up in big batches (often with multiple people assisting, as it is quite a laborious task), and given as gifts to friends. Frequently, people will have their friends over for tamaleada, an afternoon meal of coffee and tamales. It is estimated that 196 million tamales are eaten each December, which is 3 tamales per Tico (a Costa Rican name for themselves) per day. That’s quite the fiesta!
As well as homemade ones, pairs of tamales or piña de tamales are served at market stalls and restaurants. The filling of Costa Rican tamales differs from family recipe to family recipe. They often contain a cooked maize similar to polenta, inside which is stuffed capsicum, carrot, beans, onions, rice, and often pork. Families with European ancestry also often incorporate olives or prunes, which is demonstrative of how the indigenous and European heritage of Costa Rican culture comes together in their cuisine.
How to make Sweet Potato and Black Bean Vegan Tamales
This recipe is labour intensive and hands-on, but it’s not particularly complicated. Just follow the instructions and eventually you’ll have yourself some remarkably delicious vegan tamales!
1. Bake sweet potato in an oven at 190 C for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Once cooked and cooled, remove skin and mash in a bowl.
2. Make the masa (maize dough) by combining water with masa harina in a mixing bowl and leaving for 15 minutes to hydrate.
3. Rinse banana leaves and if frozen leave to soak in warm water to defrost, before trimming edges. Cut leaves into rectangles 25 x 20 cm in size and pat dry.
4. Prepare the filling by sautéing onion in a saucepan over medium heat until soft before adding black beans, chilli, sauce, spices and seasonings. Simmer for 15 minutes, and once cooked adjust flavourings to taste. Set aside to cool.
5. Add other ingredients to masa and add broth incrementally until a paste is formed. It shouldn’t be either liquid or crumbly, but α moist paste.
5. Gather banana leaves onto a flat surface. Add 2 ½ tbsp masa to each leaf, spreading out to a flat layer around ½ cm thick. Place 1 1/2 tbsp of mashed sweet potato and 1 tbsp of beans on top. Fold the two long sides of the banana leaves together, tucking one edge over the other. Fold the two shorter sides under the tamale. Tie with cut off edges of banana leaves to form a little parcel.
6. Steam tamales by lining a large pot or Dutch oven with a steamer basket. Fill with water until it almost touches the steamer basket and place banana leaves inside. Add tamales, placing a banana leaf in between each layer. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer, and steam for 1 hour.
6. Remove from steamer, leave to cool for 5 minutes then serve.
Ingredient notes for Vegan Tamales
- Banana leaves – if you have access to fresh banana leaves, go for it. Otherwise, frozen work just as well. We purchased ours from the frozen section of an Asian supermarket.
- Masa harina – this maize flour is different to cornmeal (it is dried and treated with limestone). You can generally purchase it from a Latin American store.
- Chilli – We just used normal red chillies in our vegan tamale filling, however you can sub for jalapenos whatever type of chilli you can get hold of.
- Sweet potato – I would recommend orange sweet potato if you can get your hands on it – it contributes more flavour to this dish.
Serving suggestions for Vegan Tamales
For serving the vegan tamales, top with fresh coriander, lime juice, hot sauce and sour cream (or coconut yoghurt for a DF version).
More Central American/ Caribbean dishes to try
- Vegan Coconut Tarts
- Black Bean Cakes with Salsa + Coriander Lime Yogurt
- Baked Mac and Cheese (Macaroni Pie)
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Vegan Tamales – Costa Rica
For the dough
- 2 cups masa harina
- 1 ½ cups water
- 1 ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 ¾ tsp baking powder
- 2 ½ Tbsp oil or butter
- 2/3 cup vegetable broth
For the tamales
- Banana leaves (cut into rectangles of 25 x 20 cm)
For the filling
- 3 medium-sized sweet potato
- 1 red onion (diced)
- 400 g tin black beans (rinsed)
- 1/2 cup corn
- 1 red chilli (thinly spiced)
- 1 ½ tsp hot sauce (omit is spice-sensitive)
- 1/2 tsp sea salt (plus more to taste)
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp coconut sugar
- Begin by roasting sweet potato in an oven at 190 C for 45 minutes to 1 hour, making sure to prick the sweet potato with a fork a few times before cooking to allow steam to release. Once cooked and cooled, remove skin and mash in a bowl.
- Make the masa (maize dough) by combining water with masa harina in a mixing bowl and leaving for 15 minutes to hydrate.
- Rinse banana leaves and if frozen leave to soak in warm water to defrost, before trimming edges. Cut leaves into rectangles 25 x 20 cm in size and pat dry.
- Prepare the filling by sautéing onion in a saucepan over medium heat until soft before adding black beans, corn, chilli, hot sauce, spices and seasonings. Simmer for 15 minutes, and once cooked adjust flavourings to taste. Set aside to cool.
- Add other ingredients to masa harina and add broth incrementally until a paste is formed. It shouldn't be either liquid or crumbly, but α moist paste.
- Gather banana leaves onto a flat surface. Add 2 ½ tbsp masa harina to each leaf, spreading out to a flat layer around ½ cm thick. Place 1 1/2 tbsp of mashed sweet potato and 1 tbsp of beans on top. Fold the two long sides of the banana leaves together, tucking one edge over the other. Fold the two shorter sides under the tamale. Tie with cut off edges of banana leaves to form a little parcel.
- Steam tamales by lining a large pot or Dutch oven with a steamer basket. Fill with water until it almost touches the steamer basket and place banana leaves inside. Add tamales, placing a banana leaf in between each layer. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer, and steam for 1 hour.
- Remove from steamer, leave to cool for 5 minutes then serve. Top with fresh coriander, hot sauce, lime juice and sour cream.
Did you make this recipe? We’d love to know! Tell us how it went in the comments below or tag us (@gourmetvegetarians) in your photos on Instagram.
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