For the past several years, I have made traditional, Mexican-style tamales some time between Christmas and New Year's Day. We describe that experience on the Texas page of our Celebrating the States blog.
Each January since 2006, I have had the opportunity to make nacatamales, which is a Central American variation. Larger than a tamale and with a wider assortment of components, it is wrapped in several layers of banana leaf, rather than a single corn husk. Having learned recently that frozen banana leaf is available at PriceRite in Brockton.
As we have in several recent years, we had our lesson in assembling nacatamales at the home of Doña Petrona, one of the women who hosts my students on my annual Nicaragua study tour. Our participation was limited to the assembly; Doña Petrona and other community members had already spent hours creating the components.
Gathering together several pieces of leaf, we placed a cupful of corn dough (masa) in the center. The masa was made from a combination of parboiled, ground corn and potatoes. We then placed a "salad" that was essentially pico de gallo -- chopped tomato, onion, and garlic, soaking in water -- on top. We then added a couple small pieces of bone-in chicken, probably caught from the yard that morning, and a second masa. It was only on this trip that I learned that this red dough was the same as the as the first, except for the addition of achiote powder.
Once we assembled these parts, we had the option of adding a tiny red pepper before wrapping the whole assembly like a birthday present. It is important to wrap these tightly, because of another difference between nacatamales and their Mexican counterparts. Rather than being steamed above boiling water, the nacatamales are boiled in the water; any leakage would create a weird soup and soggy dinners.
Each member of our group assembled a nacatamale - including one vegan and some with more or less pepper. We then participated in some other activities for the rest of the afternoon, rejoining at the Petrona house, where about half of us managed to identify our individual dishes, but all were richly fed.
We include this photo of our student Jen, just because of the juxtaposition of the human and canine activity -- each working unaware of the other. Check this blog in coming months, when we will try our own version, and our dog will doubtless be involved as well.