Making Nacatamales in Nicaragua.
The first step in making nacatamales was cooking the fresh, locally-grown (GMO-free) maize…
Cal powder aka calcium hydroxide (aka slaked lime) was also added to the corn. Cal is often used in Central America to prepare corn-based recipes as it helps soften and tenderize the corn. I was unfamiliar with this inorganic product and am still unsure of how healthy it is, however I respected their use of the ingredient as part of their culinary culture.
While the maize was cooking, we harvested the banana leaves for wrapping the nacatamales. Part of the palm tree trunk (the dried brown plant) was also gathered to tie the parcels together.
After an hour of cooking, the maize was drained from the water to be rinsed…
The maize was rinsed very well to remove the cal powder…
The maize was then boiled in water a second time for another hour. This step is what makes nacatamales different from Mexican tamales, as the maize is twice-cooked rather than once cooked, resulting in a smoother, creamier texture after finally being blended.
After the 2nd hour of cooking, the maize was rinsed again for the second time…
Once cooled, the maize was ground up using a metal corn grinder…
We each took turns grinding the maize as it was physically challenging – a great arm workout!
The ground maize was kneaded into a dough using water, bit by bit, until it formed a play-dough like consistency. Salt was also added at this stage to season the mixture.
The banana leaves were stripped into smaller pieces to wrap the individual nacatamales into parcels. Note the raw vegetables on the right side which were prepped for the stuffing.
The banana leaves were blanched to soften them and make more durable for wrapping…
The maize ‘dough’ was layered onto the banana leaves and stuffed with raw vegetables including: onion, carrot, potato, baby corn, green peppers, tomato, rice, and fresh mint. Cashews and raisins can be added for texture and flavour as well. They made a meat-based one too but the vegetable version is just as traditional.
The nacatamales were wrapped with banana leaves and tied using the palm tree-trunk strands.
The nacatamales were packed into a pot and steamed in water over a wood-burning stove for about 3 hours. The leaves keep the moisture inside, steaming the stuffing while imparting a sweet, aromatic flavour from the natural oils released from the leaves.
Note: the image above is not my photo-I was unable to shoot this part of the process.
The dish is served in the banana leaf for the eater to unwrap and enjoy!
Note: Due to it being very dark when the nacatamales were finished I was unable to get clear photos of the final dish. However these pics resemble the nacatamales that we made and devoured.
I spent the last month travelling in Nicaragua and had the opportunity to learn about the local cuisine and food culture. On the gorgeous island of Ometepe, I stayed at Hacienda Merida, an amazing place offering accommodations and a sustainably-constructed English school. Their lovely staff generously guided me through the day-long process of making nacatamales. From harvesting the banana (plantain) leaves, to grinding the maize, I enjoyed participating in the creation of this special traditional dish. After the day of prep, the final result was memorably delicious! the creamy, polenta-like maize, spiced mixed root vegetables, sweet/acidic tomato and aromatic mint all wrapped in banana leaf made for a perfect mouthful. While I may not be able to reproduce this recipe exactly the same here in Canada, I am grateful for having had the experience of making and eating this beautiful dish in Nicaragua!