History of a Nacatamal (2023)

Alba Lopez's Nicaraguan food stand

By Jennifer Fumiko Cahill jennifer@northcoastjournal.com @jfumikocahill

click to enlarge History of a Nacatamal (1)

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

(Video) Step 7 - Part 2 - Making Nacatamales

Alba Lopez sells banana leaf-wrapped nacatamales at her Nicaraguan Food stall at the Henderson Center Farmers Market.

Order a nacatamal from the Nicaraguan Food stall at the Henderson Center Farmers Market on a Thursday and owner Alba Lopez will present you with a fat rectangle wrapped in dark banana leaf, trussed with colored ribbon. Warm and heavy in your hands is the Nicaraguan iteration of stuffed and steamed masa, moister than in its Mexican counterpart and the leaves imparting a smokier, more tea-like flavor than corn husks. Inside are slices of potato along with hunks of seasoned pork or chicken, or mushrooms and chiles for the vegan nacatamal.

Lopez recalls learning to make them from her grandmother Carmen in Nicaragua. She recalls her grandmother saying, "'It's good, watch me make nacatamales because one day you might need it for a living.' You never know what you'll need to survive."

That survival skill has turned into a business for Lopez, who sells nacatamales, tamales, stuffed and grilled corn meal pupusas and gallo pinto — the rice and beans ubiquitous at Nicaraguan meals — at farmers markets in Arcata, Eureka and Fortuna each week. Her daughter and son help with the business, but the food is all Alba, and it carries the markers of her home country's culture and history, as well as her own invention and adaptation.

(Video) 30 Things about Nicaragua

"The story of Nicaragua has been the story of the war," says Lopez, who describes her life there as "happy" before the tumult of the Sandinista National Liberation Front's overthrow of the Samoza dictatorship in 1978 and the subsequent Contra War in the 1980s, in which the U.S. and Soviet Union backed opposite sides as an extension of the Cold War. "It's a game that nobody is the winner," she says.

Like many Nicaraguans, Lopez's family faced hardship and food scarcity. At the market, Lopez says, "I used to get milk and bread for my kids and nothing for myself. ... I remember when we can find eggs, all the adult people in the house said, 'Eggs are for kids,' and everyone respect that." Once, years later in the U.S., her brother-in-law was urging her to eat a little more. When she demurred, he confessed he used to sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to eat a couple eggs. His guilt, he told her, made him want to give her more food now that they had it.

"In my culture in Nicaragua, we don't waste food. If someone invite me and give me a plate of food, I have to eat everything," says Lopez. A few times, she says, she gave food to a homeless guy who came to her stall and said he was hungry, "because I can't say no."

Lopez's grandmother was the first to seek political asylum in the U.S. in 1979, after losing two children. "She came with a broken heart," says Lopez. Her grandmother immigrated to San Francisco and eventually moved to San Jose, where she died two years ago at the age of 98. In the late 1980s, Lopez, then in her 20s, joined her in San Jose before moving to Humboldt, where her daughter attended Humboldt State University. That was 15 years ago. "I feel good, I feel happy here. This is my town," Lopez says. "I declare that I want to be part of this town."

Lopez started working in restaurants and in 2010, started a nacatamale stand at G and 15th streets in Arcata, before selling wholesale to Murphy's Market and Eureka Natural Foods. With advice and encouragement from friends at the farmers markets, she started selling at the North Coast Growers Association markets where she could get a space. Since 2018, she's been selling direct to customers instead of through grocery stores.

The items on the white board menu reflect the history and cultures of Nicaragua, from its Indigenous roots to its Spanish colonial influence, as well as the Afro-Caribbean flavors from the Atlantic side of the country. Lopez's own family history straddles the country and its regional cuisines, as her great-grandfather Chano was Black and from the Atlantic/Caribbean coast. Since his name was Moreira and it was customary for enslaved people to go by the slave owner's name, Lopez says her family figures their ancestors were abducted into the Portuguese slave trade in the Caribbean. Her great-grandmother Martina fell in love with this "handsome guy" and moved to the Pacific Coast, where they set up a coffee farm.

(Video) MUESTRA DE SAKA Nacatamale - CIGAR REVIEWS by CigarScore

Nacatamales, Lopez says, are "an ancient food" from Indigenous people who used banana leaves as a natural preservative and seasoned pork and corn masa with mint, garlic and onion. From the Caribbean coast, she says, come dishes with lots of coconut milk and spices, like her grandmother's banana bread, made with malanga root, burnt sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. With no eggs or butter, all its richness is derived from the coconut milk. "You eat that bread with hot chocolate or rice milk as a child in my country," she says. It's an item she hasn't sold at her stand for a while, but it could make a comeback and can be special ordered, along with yuca, malanga and other specialties. (The regular menu can be found at www.nicarauganfoods.com.)

The pupusas — balls of masa that are hand rolled, stuffed and flattened before pan frying — are a traditional food from El Salvador. But war drove Salvadoran refugees to Nicaragua in the 1980s. Lopez learned by watching them making pupusas in the market there and developed her own recipe. "I integrated more ingredients and the flour of the nacatamale is in the pupusa," she says, along with Nicaraguan flavors like the turmeric — "a magic food for special flavor" — that give the masa its golden color. Similar to the Salvadoran cortido with which pupusas are often served, Nicaraguan ensalada, a tart cabbage slaw with onions, carrots, lemon juice and a little spice, comes on the side, along with a thin, bright salsa. Lopez says much like gallo pinto, it goes with everything at every meal.

For now, Lopez does her prep at El Pueblo Market's commercial kitchen but she's working on renovating a certified kitchen of her own, hopefully by next year. She hopes the space will allow her "to cook and to create whenever I want," as well as sell to-go orders throughout the week. Getting ready for a Saturday crowd at the Arcata Farmers market can mean starting at 3 a.m. to crank out some 50 pupusas, stew chicken and make tamales and nacatamales, which take about four hours.

Lopez laughs and says she used to tell her mother, "You cook good but never like my grandma." Now her granddaughter says the same to Lopez's daughter. That, she says, is the way it is with a grandmother's cooking. And her customers seem to agree.

"I feel super satisfied when people come back and say, 'Thanks for cooking — that's good food.' More than money," Lopez says. "I feel good, I feel special."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

(Video) Muy posiblemente me censuren este video... | TRIBU VERSIÓN EXPLÍCITA


What does Nacatamal mean in Spanish? ›

NACATAMAL means meat tamale in Nahuatl, an indigenous language that brings Nicaraguan Spanish to life. Drive through Managua on a Sunday morning and you will see taxis lining the streets in front of eateries ready to buy this traditional breakfast.

What is the difference between Nacatamales and tamales? ›

Nicaraguan Nacatamales are a real treat. They are different than a Mexican style tamale as the masa has a bit of bitter orange added to it. It also has rice, meat, potato, tomato, and usually some prunes, green olive, capers and raisins. It is much more like a complete meal in a nice package.

What are Nacatamales wrapped in? ›

Nacatamales are a traditional Christmas dish of Nicaraguans, typically eaten on the morning of Dec. 24. Wrapped in banana leaves, these tight packages are filled with everything from pork or chicken to prunes, peppers, potatoes and rice.

What is a NACA tamale? ›

Nacatamal is a type of traditional Nicaraguan tamale made with corn dough which is stuffed with chicken or pork, then wrapped in plantain leaves and steamed. This savory dish usually also contains ingredients such as bell peppers, garlic, potatoes, rice, bitter orange, onions, mint, and chile peppers.

Are tamales Hispanic or Mexican? ›

Origin. Tamales originated in Mexico as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. The preparation of tamales is likely to have spread from the indigenous cultures in Mexico to the rest of Latin America.

How many calories does a Nacatamal have? ›

Each tamale contains about: 453 calories; 267 mg sodium; 40 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 59 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 1.08 gram fiber.

What do Mexicans call tamales? ›

"In Mexico it's tamal and here in Texas it's tamale." I've lived in Texas for close to 21 years.

What do Puerto Ricans call tamales? ›

Pasteles are a traditional dish popular in several Latin American countries like Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Panama and in Trinidad and Tobago. It closely resembles to that of Central American's tamale. A Christmas favorite, this wrapped dish is most often served with Pernil and Arroz con Gandules.

What did the Aztecs call tamales? ›

Tamale is derived from the word "tamal" in Nahuatl. This was the Aztec's primary language during the height of their empire. Tamales were also called "uah" by Mayans, "pibs" by the Yucatans, "hallaquitas" by Venezuelans, and "humitas" by those living south of the Equator.

How do you eat Nacatamales? ›

Eat your tamale with a fork and knife.

Be sure to remove the wrapper entirely from tamales steamed in corn husks. While plantain leaves are edible (though they're not usually consumed with the tamales), corn husks aren't, and could cause choking or an upset stomach if swallowed.

Are you supposed to eat the wrap on a tamale? ›

The first rule of thumb when eating tamales is don't consume the wrapper - corn husks aren't meant to be eaten and can result in an upset stomach and may pose a choking risk for younger children.

Do you eat the cornhusk on a tamale? ›

Through a viral Twitter thread, we recently learned that there are countless of yts who didn't realize that you had to unwrap tamales before they could be consumed. Apparently, people just dug right in – corn husk and all – and obviously, they hated it because the hoja de maíz is not meant to be eaten.

Are tamales Mayan or Aztec? ›

Although the exact history is not entirely clear, many historians believe that tamales were first made by the Aztecs ten thousand years ago. Tamales were a portable, protein-rich food that Aztec warriors could take into battle.

What's in a Tamalada? ›

To prepare: Combine one part lard to two parts masa in a stand mixer, adding small amounts of the ancho chile paste, salt, and pork stock. Mix until smooth. (Traditionalists prefer to knead the dough manually; this labor-intensive task is best suited to a strong primo.)

What's the difference between Guatemalan and Mexican tamales? ›

How they're made: While Mexican tamales are a little closer to cornbread in texture, Guatemalan tamales are softer. Guatemalan tamales are also made with corn masa, but are wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with pork or chicken and red chili sauce. Chuchitos are an alternative type of Guatemalan tamal.

What do tamales symbolize? ›

Tamales, made from corn, were commonly sent out with hunters, travelers, and soldiers for portable sustenance and luck along their journeys, and became the chosen feast for spiritual and community celebrations.

What is a single tamale called? ›

The form tamal is preferred by some to tamale, as tamal is the Standard Spanish singular form while tamale is generally analyzed as a back-formation from the plural tamales, thus proscribed.

Did Native Americans invent tamales? ›

The origins of the tamale date back to the time of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans. Although widely debated, the first tamales were developed for transporting foods more efficiently during war. Gaining popularity, they became a part of ceremonies, rituals, feasts and fiestas.

Are tamales considered healthy? ›

Tamales are generally considered healthy,” says Bansari Acharya, R.D.N., a registered dietitian and blogger at FoodLove. “Especially because they're steamed instead of fried.” However, because of the fat and carbohydrate content, it's important to watch your portions.

Are tamales healthy for weight loss? ›

Consuming a lot of tamale can provide you with a lot of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fibers. Although they are low in fat and sodium, they are not recommended as a healthy diet food due to their high fat and sodium content.

Is there any sugar in tamales? ›

In a Mexican-American restaurant that serves chicken tamales without added sauce, one tamale has approximately 260 calories. Each serving supplies 27 grams of carbohydrates, which take up over 41 percent of the tamale's calories. Sugar is 2 grams of these carbohydrates.

Why do Mexicans put olives in tamales? ›

To traditional Christian believers, each tamale can be considered a metaphor or symbol for the Holy Virgin. After all, every real Mexican tamale must have an olive in it. On one level, that olive represents the Christ child waiting to be born -- as he is every year at Christmas.

What time of day eat tamales? ›

Tamal is a very popular and commonly consumed dish. In Mexico, it is common to eat tamales in the morning for breakfast and on some festivities. The most important day for eating tamales is: 'Dia de la Candelaria' (Candlemas Day on 2nd February).

Why are tamales eaten at Christmas? ›

Making tamales during the Christmas holidays is a tradition for Mexican, Mexican-Texan, and Mexican American families that has been passed down for decades. According to the Los Angeles Times, in Mesoamerica, corn was viewed as a substance of life and was believed that the Gods made humans from corn.

What do they call pork in Puerto Rico? ›

Lechón means roasted whole pork, which is cooked for hours over hot coals or an open flame, allowing the skin to get crispy while the meat remains tender and juicy. This is a dish you can typically only get in the countryside of Puerto Rico and it becomes more prevalent during the holiday season.

Is the pasteles Dominican or Puerto Rican? ›

The origins of pasteles, however, can be traced back several centuries to Spanish colonial times, before they became an essential Puerto Rican Christmas dish.

What is traditional Puerto Rican food called? ›

Locals call their cuisine "cocina criolla". Cocina criolla (Créole cooking) can be traced back to the Arawaks and Tainos, the original inhabitants of the island, who thrived on a diet of corn, tropical fruit, and seafood.

What did the Aztecs call popcorn? ›

Aztec Gold: Watch The History And Science Of Popcorn : The Salt Popcorn has been around at least 4,000 years. The Aztecs even had a word for the sound of kernels popping — totopoca. On National Popcorn Day, ponder the story of this beloved snack.

What are the two types of tamales? ›

Learn more about some of the different types of tamales:
  • Canarios: A distinct departure from corn tamales, the canario has no cornmeal at all. ...
  • Chaya: Across Mexico and Belize, people enjoy these tamales, named for the chaya plant.
27 Apr 2022

What did Aztecs call tacos? ›

In Nahuatl (the Aztec language), tlahco means “middle”, and the best way to enjoy a tortilla was with something in the tlahco of it. The word tlahco for a filled tortilla is believed to be the origin of our modern “taco”.

Are Humitas like tamales? ›

Humitas are similar to Mexican uchepos, which are also made with fresh corn; but they are only superficially similar to tamales, which are made with nixtamalized corn (masa).

How long do Nacatamales last in the fridge? ›

In an airtight container or vacuum-sealed Ziploc bag, cooked and uncooked tamales will stay delicious for around seven days in the fridge or up to six months frozen. You can slip some paper napkins into the container or bag to help absorb extra moisture and keep ice crystals out of your corn dough.

What is the Nicaraguan national dish? ›

The country's national dish is gallo pinto (fried rice mixed with black beans and other spices). Corn (maize) is the staple of Nicaraguan gastronomy and is used in many foods, such as nacatamal (cornmeal dough stuffed with meat and cooked in plantain leaves), indio viejo (corn tortilla with meat, onions,…

What sauce is good with tamales? ›

Tamales can be served with any number of condiments -- ranchero sauce, guacamole, and sour cream -- just to name a few. But, the most popular of them all is the traditional red chili sauce, not to be confused with the aforementioned ranchero sauce.

What goes with tamales for dinner? ›

15 Simple Side Dishes for Tamales
  • Avocado Cucumber Salad.
  • Air Fryer Plantains.
  • Elotes (Mexican Street Corn) Salad.
  • Papas Con Rajas.
  • Refried Black Beans.
  • Gallo Pinto.
  • Roasted Chili Corn Salsa.
  • Arroz Borracho (Beer Steamed Yellow Rice)
10 Jun 2021

How many tamales should you eat? ›

However, as a guide, it is generally recommended to eat two to three tamales per person. A tamale, a corn masa dough ball with a sweet or savory filling, is a traditional American snack. The dough is wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, or plantain leaves, and steamed until cooked.

Why are corn husks not edible? ›

The Corn husks are not edible and are removed before eating. To prepare, soak in warm water just until pliable; remove any silk strands; wash thoroughly.
Baby Food
Cooking With MamaCorn Husk Bread
Created by DianeCornbread Tamale Bites with Jalapeno, Cheese and Bacon
5 more rows

What is the bread around a tamale called? ›

The dough, called “masa” is spread on the corn husk. The corn husks do not get eaten, they are just used to envelope the dough and filling of the tamale which gets cooked inside. The filling. You can fill the tamales with meat or beans and cheese.

What is the bread in tamales called? ›

The flavor doesn't matter; it can be sweet, mole, rajas, green, etc. The important thing is that it is inside a bolillo (the bread). There are different versions of why the tamale torta is called guajolota, and some think it is because of its caloric value since it makes you put on weight like a “guajolote” (turkey).

What did the Mayans call corn? ›

The Maya used maize, which we call corn, to make tortillas (flat pancakes similar to how we use bread), tamales (vegetables and meat wrapped up in a corn husk and like a pasty), and a nutritious corn drink which is very nourishing. Maize is the most common crop grown in the Maya area.

Did Mayans popcorn? ›

It was very important to the people who made it. The Aztecs used popcorn for both decoration and for eating. They also had a word, “totopoca,” for the sound of popcorn popping. The Maya even tell stories about humans being created from maize.

Why are tamales so important to Mexicans? ›

Tamales continue to have great significance as a form of sustenance and as a symbolic element in Mexican and Mexican American cultures. Tamales are strongly associated with themes of unity, celebration, family, kinship, and community.

How are humitas different than tamales? ›

Although humitas are sometimes called tamales, the latter are traditionally made with soaked dried corn, while humitas are based on the fresh variety. See Handling Humitas for expert tips on making perfect humitas.

Are Pamonha tamales? ›

Both the pamonha and tamal utilize a corn-based paste that is steamed or boiled within a corn husk. Both can be filled with various ingredients, like meat or vegetables. The main difference between a pamonha and a tamal is the type of corn that is used and how it is processed.

Are tamales African? ›

From Mexico to the Caribbean all the way down to Brazil, there is one dish that connects that diaspora with its undeniable African roots— tamales.

Did the Mayans make tamales? ›

Tamales. Within the Mayan culture, tamales are one of the most beloved foods in the diet. Made with corn masa that envelops tasty filling options such as cheese and chilis, pork or chicken, they are then wrapped up in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed.

Do Guatemalan tamales have bones in them? ›

Traditionally, chicken tamales in Guatemala use chicken pieces with bones, making it challenging to pick out when eating. What is this? I recommend using boneless chicken. If using chicken, the cooking time for the meat may vary as chicken cooks faster than pork.

What is a cholla in Spanish slang? ›

feminine noun. cabeza) nut (informal) ⧫ noggin (informal) ⧫ head.

What do tamales mean in Mexico? ›

The word tamale comes from the Mexican Spanish tamal, which has a Nahuatl root, tamalli, meaning "wrapped." Definitions of tamale. corn and cornmeal dough stuffed with a meat mixture then wrapped in corn husks and steamed. type of: dish. a particular item of prepared food.

How do you say possum in Spanish slang? ›

opossum {noun}

tlacuache {m} [Mex.] comadreja {f} [SAm.]

What pastilla mean in English? ›

tablet, the ~ Noun. pill, the ~ Noun.

What do Mexicans call a slipper? ›

chancla (plural chanclas) (Latin American culture) A slipper or flip-flop.

What is a Marzo? ›

Marzo is an Italian (IPA: [ˈmartso]) and Spanish (IPA: [ˈmarθo] or [ˈmarso]) surname. Marzo in both languages means March and the name originally indicated a special connection of its bearer to the third month of the year.

What do Mexicans call watermelon? ›

In Mexico, the watermelon (“sandía” in Spanish), is one of the most beloved every day fruits.

What do you call a girl Takuache? ›

' These takuaches, or takuachitas (feminine form), are identified by the fitting hats, bootcut jeans, and gold chains that they wear. In most cases, they are skilled in baile dancing and like to wear shoes with a square toe, such as Jordans or boots with a square toe.

How do Mexicans say cactus? ›

Nopal (from the Nahuatl word nohpalli [noʔˈpalːi] for the pads of the plant) is a common name in Spanish for Opuntia cacti (commonly referred to in English as prickly pear), as well as for its pads.

What is a pastilla and what country did it originate? ›

Pastillas, also known as pastillas de leche (lit: Milk Pills) or pastiyema, refer to a type of milk-based confections that originated in the town of San Miguel in Bulacan, Philippines. From San Miguel, pastillas-making spread to other Philippine provinces such as Cagayan and Masbate.

What does Pepa mean in Spanish slang? ›

(Latin America, slang) clitoris.

What is a coca in Spanish? ›

The coca (Catalan pronunciation: [ˈkokə], Western Catalan: [ˈkokɛ]) Coc or Fogassa is a pastry typically made and consumed in Catalonia, the Aragonese Strip, most of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra and in French Catalonia. Coca. Sweet and savoury cocas. Type. Pastry.


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