Vegan Costa Rica Tamales Recipe Made with Sweet Potato and Black Bean

Unwrap steamy parcels of banana leaves to reveal tender maize-dough surrounding a flavour-packed sweet potato and black bean filling in these vegan Costa Rica tamales.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

Overview of 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 is legally-protected conservation land. The combination of the country’s environmentalism and natural beauty are in part responsible for its booming eco-tourism.

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 Recipes

  • 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.
Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

Making These Vegan Costa Rica Tamales

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.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

How to make vegan Costa Rica 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.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

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.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

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.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

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.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

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.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

6. Remove from steamer, leave to cool for 5 minutes then serve.

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales

Ingredient notes for Vegan Costa Rica 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.
Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

Serving suggestions for Vegan Costa Rica Tamales

For serving the vegan tamales, top with fresh coriander, lime juice, hot sauce and sour cream (or coconut yoghurt for a DF version).

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For more recipes from the Caribbean:

Costa Rica tamales | vegetarian tamales recipe

Vegan Costa Rica Tamales with Sweet Potato & Black Bean

Yield: 4
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours 45 minutes

Unwrap steamy parcels of banana leaves to reveal tender maize-dough surrounding a flavour-packed sweet potato and black bean filling in these vegan Costa Rica tamales.

Ingredients

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

Instructions

  1. 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.
  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, corn, chilli, hot 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 harina and add broth incrementally until a paste is formed. It shouldn't be either liquid or crumbly, but α moist paste.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Remove from steamer, leave to cool for 5 minutes then serve. Top with fresh coriander, hot sauce, lime juice and sour cream.

Notes

Recipe adapted from Minimalist Baker

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