Citizens, as I attempt to catch up on several recipes that have been malingering about My cerebral cortex these last few difficult weeks, my thoughts keep coming back to Nicaraguan nacatamales and how in 6+ years of running this blog, I have somehow failed to share a recipe from the proud country of Nicaragua! This oversight MUST be rectified without delay, and as My actions ever follow from a promise so shall I now gladly share My specific take on what may be the national celebratory dish of Nicaragua – and believe you Me, it is delicious beyond compare!
Traditional Nicaraguan nacatamales make an excellent Sunday breakfast that will surprise most people due to their large size – almost 10 ounces. A proper nacatamal is large, always wrapped in banana leaves, and has an ultra-fine corn dough. It’s usually filled with pork or chicken in adobo sauce, a bit of rice, a slice of potato and tomato, a stem of mint, raisins, prunes, olives, peanuts, chili peppers and pieces of pork jowl. According to custom, this dish is accompanied by bread and café con leche, but the type of drink served can vary according to the occasion. Before we get to the recipe, let’s recap some history of the country, shall we?
First off – the Republic of Nicaragua (Spanish: República de Nicaragua), is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordered by Honduras to the northwest, the Caribbean to the east, Costa Rica to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. Managua is the country’s capital and largest city and is also the third-largest city in Central America, behind Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City. The multi-ethnic population of six million includes people of indigenous, European, African, and Asian heritage. The main language is Spanish,, while indigenous tribes on the Mosquito Coast speak their own languages and English.
Originally inhabited by various indigenous cultures since ancient times, the region was conquered by the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821. The Mosquito Coast followed a different historical path, being colonized by the English in the 17th century and later coming under British rule. It became an autonomous territory of Nicaragua in 1860 and its northernmost part was transferred to Honduras in 1960. Since its independence, Nicaragua has undergone periods of political unrest, dictatorship, occupation and fiscal crisis, including the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the Contra War of the 1980s.
The mixture of cultural traditions has generated substantial diversity in folklore, cuisine, music, and literature, particularly the latter, given the literary contributions of Nicaraguan poets and writers such as Rubén Darío. Known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes”, Nicaragua is also home to the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, the second-largest rainforest of the Americas. The biological diversity, warm tropical climate and active volcanoes make Nicaragua an increasingly popular tourist destination.
There are two prevailing theories on how the name “Nicaragua” came to be. The first is that the name was coined by Spanish colonists based on the name ‘Nicarao’, who was the chieftain or cacique of a powerful indigenous tribe encountered by the Spanish conquistador Gil González Dávila during his entry into southwestern Nicaragua in 1522. This theory holds that the name Nicaragua was formed from Nicarao and agua (Spanish for “water”), to reference the fact that there are two large lakes and several other bodies of water within the country. However, as of 2002, it was determined that the cacique’s real name was Macuilmiquiztli, which meant ‘Five Deaths’ in the Nahuatl language.
The second theory is that the country’s name comes from any of the following Nahuatl words: nic-anahuac, which meant “Anahuac reached this far”, or “the Nahuas came this far”, or “those who come from Anahuac came this far”; nican-nahua, which meant “here are the Nahuas”; or nic-atl-nahuac, which meant “here by the water” or “surrounded by water”.
Paleo-Americans first inhabited what is now known as Nicaragua as far back as 12,000 BCE. Nicaragua’s central region and its Caribbean coast were inhabited by Macro-Chibchan language ethnic groups such as the Miskito, Rama, Mayangna, and Matagalpas. At the end of the 15th century, western Nicaragua was inhabited by several indigenous peoples related by culture to the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Aztec and Maya, and by language to the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area.
In 1502, on his fourth voyage, Christopher Columbus became the first European known to have reached what is now Nicaragua as he sailed southeast toward the Isthmus of Panama. Columbus explored the Mosquito Coast on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua but did not encounter any indigenous people. 20 years later, the Spaniards returned to Nicaragua, this time to its southwestern part. The first attempt to conquer Nicaragua was by the conquistador Gil González Dávila, who had arrived in Panama in January 1520. In 1522, González Dávila ventured to the area that later became the Rivas Department of Nicaragua.
There he encountered an indigenous Nahua tribe led by chief Macuilmiquiztli, whose name has sometimes been erroneously referred to as “Nicarao” or “Nicaragua”. The tribe’s capital was Quauhcapolca. González Dávila conversed with Macuilmiquiztli thanks to two indigenous interpreters who had learned Spanish, whom he had brought along.
After exploring and gathering gold in the fertile western valleys, González Dávila and his men were attacked and driven off by the Chorotega, led by chief Diriangén. The Spanish tried to convert the tribes to Christianity; Macuilmiquiztli’s tribe was baptized, but Diriangén was openly hostile to the Spaniards.
The first Spanish permanent settlements were founded in 1524. That year, the conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded two of Nicaragua’s main cities: Granada on Lake Nicaragua, and then León, west of Lake Managua. Córdoba soon built defenses for the cities and fought against incursions by other conquistadors. Córdoba was later publicly beheaded for having defied his superior, Pedro Arias Dávila. Córdoba’s tomb and remains were discovered in 2000 in the ruins of León Viejo.
Without women in their parties, the Spanish conquerors took Nahua and Chorotega wives and partners, beginning the multiethnic mix of indigenous and European stock now known as ‘mestizo’, which constitutes the great majority of the population in western Nicaragua. Many indigenous people were killed by European infectious diseases, compounded by neglect by the Spaniards, who controlled their subsistence. Many other indigenous peoples were captured and transported as slaves to Panama and Peru between 1526 and 1540.
The history of Nicaragua throughout the 20th century was rife with corruption, dictatorships and revolutions – so much so that many Nicaraguans are today living outside their home country, primarily in El Salvador, Costa Rica and the United States.
As for the country’s cuisine – it is a mixture of Spanish food and dishes of a pre-Columbian origin. Traditional cuisine changes from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast – the Pacific coast’s main staple revolves around local fruits and corn, while the Caribbean coast cuisine makes use of seafood and the coconut. As in many other Latin American countries, maize is a staple food and is used in many of the widely consumed dishes, such as the nacatamal, güirila], and indio viejo. Maize is also an ingredient for drinks such as pinolillo and chicha as well as sweets and desserts. In addition to corn, rice and beans are eaten very often.
A nacatamal is a traditional dish found in Nicaragua similar to the tamal. Its name originates from the Nawat language spoken by the Nicarao, which were situated on the Southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, and translates to ‘meat tamale’. The nacatamal is perhaps the most produced within traditional Nicaraguan cuisine and it is an event often reserved for Sundays at mid-morning, it is usually eaten together with fresh bread and coffee. It is common to enjoy nacatamales (plural) during special occasions and to invite extended family and neighbors to partake.
A nacatamal is made up of mostly nixtamalized corn masa (a kind of dough traditionally made from a process called nizquezar) and lard, but includes seasonings such as salt and achiote (annatto). This combination is traditionally cooked in a large batch over a wood fire. The result becomes the base for the nacatamal and it is also referred to as masa. This base is ladled onto plantain leaves used for wrapping into large individual portions. The leaves undergo their own preparation separately.
Before a nacatamal can be wrapped and brought to the last stage of the cooking process, it must be filled. The filling usually consists of annatto-seasoned pork meat, rice, slices of potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions; olives, spearmint sprigs, and chile congo, a very small, egg-shaped chile found in Nicaragua. On occasion, prunes, raisins or capers can be added.
The masa and filling are then wrapped in the plantain leaves, tied with a string, and made into pillow-shaped bundles – nacatamales (the plural of nacatamal). They are then steamed or pressure-cooked for several hours. The entire process is very labor-intensive and it often requires preparation over the course of two days; it is usually necessary to involve the whole family to complete it.
I encourage all of TFD Nation to follow suit – this is a LOT of work, but the result is supremely savory and will become a great favorite at your table, I promise! Just enlist a little child labor (if you have kids) or forced labor (friends, family) to help you out and the work will progress smoothly and quickly. First off, get yourself some top-quality pork to make this dish – I personally prefer Berkshire (aka Kurobota) pork for this recipe – a quality butcher should stock it or you can order it online from here. To simulate how nacatamal were traditionally cooked over open flame, I’ve added in a bit of liquid smoke to my recipe as well – either hickory or mesquite, as your taste dictates.
Guanciale is my substitute for the pork jowl traditionally also used in this nacatamal recipe – I prefer the herbaceous quality the curing process with rosemary adds to the dish. You can find good-quality guanciale here and you can also purchase excellent-quality fresh banana leaves from here. Achiote paste is a key coloring and seasoning in this dish – an excellent and inexpensive brand may be found on Amazon here. Lastly, you need top-quality lard in quantity to make this recipe the way the good Lord intended – this is my go-to brand.
Citizens – making these nacatamal may be a ton of work, but trust Me – you will find all the hours of sweat equity (do remember what I said earlier about getting some help!) to be well worth the time!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon Nicaraguan Pork Nacatamal
- For the filling:
- 6 ozs. pork jowl (guanciale can be substituted or just use skinless pork belly), cut into one-inch cubes
- 2 lbs. skinless pork belly, roughly cut (if you prefer a leaner cut, use boneless pork rib meat)
- 3 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes, grated
- 1 cup peeled and diced white onion
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped (1/2 head)
- 1 Tbsp. achiote paste (or freshly-ground annatto seed, dissolved in mild vinegar)
- 1/2 cup juice from a bitter orange (or simulate with equal parts of orange, lime and grapefruit juices)
- 1 tsp. Mesquite liquid smoke (optional but recommended TFD addition)
- Kosher Salt
- 1 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
- 1 tsp. freshly-ground cumin (optional TFD addition)
- To make the dough:
- 2 lbs. corn flour, the type for making tortillas
- 3 cups lukewarm water or chicken stock (TFD strongly prefers stock)
- Juice from one whole bitter orange (or simulate with equal parts of orange, lime and grapefruit juices)
- 6 garlic cloves, roasted in oven (1/2 head) (optional TFD addition)
- 3 cups pork lard or drippings, melted
- Kosher Salt
- Main ingredients:
- 8 ozs. rice, soaked in water and drained
- 2 medium white potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 3 medium heirloom tomatoes, sliced
- 1 large white onion, peeled and sliced
- 12 small sprigs fresh spearmint
- 12 small sprigs cilantro
- 1/2 cup pitted green olives from the jar, more as needed
- 1/2 cup golden raisins, more as needed (TFD change, original recipe called for prunes)
- 1/2 cup raisins, more as needed
- 1/4 cup peanuts, more as needed
- 1/4 cup capers, more as needed
- 1/4 cup mixed red and green habanero peppers, de-stemmed, cut in 1/2 and de-seeded
- To assemble:
- 2–3 rolls of smoked or boiled banana leaves (TFD prefers smoked, if you can find them)
- Butchers Twine, to tie up the nacatamales
- First prepare the meat for the filling. The belly and pork jowl should be cooked in a covered pot over low heat with the tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, raw garlic, dissolved achiote, bitter orange juice, salt and pepper.
- Add ½ or one full cup of water (or chicken stock, if you have any extra) if necessary, and when the meat is tender, adjust the seasoning as desired. Remove from heat and let cool; the meat should be juicy and well-seasoned.
- To prepare the dough, place the corn flour in a bowl. Add the lukewarm water, bitter orange juice, liquid smoke and the pulp from the 6 roasted garlic cloves (if using) and knead constantly. Slowly incorporate the melted pork drippings and salt. The dough should be very smooth and similar in texture to play-dough. If the result is too dry, add a bit of water. Remember that as the dough rests, it will become more firm. When this happens, place in a pot over medium-heat and stir with a wooden spoon for around 40 minutes.
- Have the banana leaves ready for assembling the nacatamales. Take two leaves and place in the form of a cross. Place a ¾-cup portion of dough in the center, where the leaves overlap, and slightly flatten with your hand. Over the dough, add a piece of belly pork meat and two cubes of pork jowl. Cover with one tablespoon of sauce left from cooking the pork.
- To the side of the dough, place one tablespoon of soaked rice, with one slice of potato, tomato, onion and a sprig each of mint and cilantro.
- To the other side of the dough, add two olives, three golden raisins, three raisins, two peanuts, two capers and two stemmed habanero peppers (one red and one green.)
- Close the tamale as if it was an empanada, securing the contents well with the banana leaves, so that none of the filling falls out. Tie the nacatamales with twine to keep closed.
- To cook, cover the base of a large pot with a rack and place the leftover banana leaf scraps on top. Then add the prepared nacatamales followed by more banana leaves. Add enough boiling water to fill half of the pot.
- Cover the pot with a lid and cook over medium heat to steam the tamales for three to four hours. Remember that you’ll have to add more hot water over time, as it boils away.
- When finished, serve hot accompanied with pita bread.
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tamales are SO delicious. labour intensive, yes, but eminently worth it. even simple tamales can be astoundingly succulent…one of the best things i’ve ever eaten was a wax paper-wrapped parcel of pork tamales which i bought form a grandmother with a basket of them for sale at a tiny petrol stop between taos and santa fe…the flavour lingers in my mind though two decades have passed. i am intrigued by the seasoning in the masa for these. the whole thing sounds amazing.
Thanks so much – I truly appreciate all your comments!
I loved the article!! You couldn’t say it better
Lorent D Espinoza
I like your post but adding peanuts, capers, and raisins is not part of the recipe. Those are new additions that ruin the original nacatamal flavor. One more thing we never use pre-made corn flour for the dough Preparing the fine dough takes several hours. How do I know this? My family has prepared nacatamales for many generations before me and my mother passed on the skill to me. Cafe con leche is a no go. The coffee must be black.
Great , I was born in Puerto Canezas
It’s delicious, plain and simple!