It's Nacatamal Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nicaraguans in foreign lands always remember the nacatamales.

--Poet Ernesto Cardenal

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Jose Coronel Urtecho, one of Nicaragua's most respected writers, once observed that "one silent nacatamal" says more about the history of his country than anything else. The nacatamal, after all, was there first.

War and poverty have aged Nicaragua; earthquakes and hurricanes have scarred it. But in many ways, the wounds and wrinkles have only made this lush and beautiful land more enticing.

Yet Nicaragua remains more a contradiction than a country. It's a nation that has long revered the power of the poet, but until recently much of its population was illiterate. It's a country that speaks Spanish on one coast and English on the other. And in Nicaragua's impoverished capital, where street addresses are as rare as washing machines, directions are frequently given in relation to landmarks that were razed years ago.

To understand Nicaragua, you must know it intimately. And that intimacy can best be found in the simple kitchens of Managua's sprawling neighborhoods, because that's where you'll find the nacatamal.

The nacatamal is the Nicaraguan cousin of the Mexican tamale. The two dishes have changed considerably since pre-Colombian times, however, with the nacatamal growing in both size and complexity in relation to its Mexican relative. Even the packaging has changed: In Mexico, tamales are traditionally wrapped in cornhusks; in Nicaragua, nacatamales are wrapped in banana leaves.

In Nicaragua, the nacatamal ranks just behind the flag and the poet Ruben Dario as a symbol of national identity. Nicaraguans prize it because it's found only in Nicaragua and uses only local ingredients, and they take a certain satisfaction in its huge size.

Nicaragua's tropical climate has conspired against the establishment of strictly seasonal dishes, so while nacatamales are enjoyed year-round, they are closely identified with the Christmas season and la Purisima, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The festivities--half Halloween and half High Mass--which take place this Saturday and Sunday, commemorate the Catholic belief that the mother of Christ was conceived without original sin. Religious scholars say devotion to Mary is probably more deeply rooted in heavily Catholic Nicaragua than anywhere else.

On Purisima eve, huge groups of children and young adults parade from house to house, pausing before elaborate homemade shrines to the Virgin to shout out in unison: "Quien causa tanta alegria?" (Who causes such joy?) The children then answer their own question: "La concepcion de Maria!"

The children's recitation is rewarded with gifts of fruit, sugar cane and small toys. The next day the adults gather before the shrines in equally large groups and, in a much more solemn ceremony, recite the rosary.

In addition to the shrines, both celebrations are also likely to have nacatamales in common. The same can be said of Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), which is known in Managua more for the incessant sound of firecrackers and a late-night dinner of nacatamales than for the exchanging of gifts.

Preparing nacatamales can be a long and tedious process, though, so many Managuans simply wait for the weekends, when tireless women make them by the dozen, then hawk them for $1 apiece through kitchen windows adorned with hand-lettered signs that read, "Hay Nacatamales." It's a tradition that many Nicaraguans have brought to Los Angeles, where word of mouth or tiny ads in Spanish-language newspapers draw people to the doorsteps of women who continue to make and sell nacatamales to help make ends meet.

Even people with small appetites can handle a couple of Mexican tamales in one sitting, but the dense, massive Nicaraguan nacatamal is a meal in itself. Imagine a Yoshinoya beef bowl wrapped in a banana leaf and you'll have an idea.

Everything that goes into a nacatamal must be made from scratch. You start by soaking a pound of rice in cold, clear water. In another pan, cover a dozen and a half large banana leaves with water and bring to gentle boil to make the leaves soft and pliable. Although banana leaves may be difficult to find in major supermarkets, markets that specialize in Latin American products will probably stock them.

Next, boil some potatoes until they become soft, then mash and stir into a large mixing bowl with three pounds of masa harina. The result will be a thick, doughy substance to which you'll add finely chopped garlic, onions, green peppers and two teaspoons of vinegar.

Place a dozen softened banana leaves on a level surface and distribute the masa mixture evenly among them, flattening it as you go. On top of each add three or four small pieces of uncooked pork, seasoned with pepper and tomato paste, and a handful of the washed, raw rice.

The banana leaves should be getting crowded by now, but squeeze in a slice of two of raw potato, a couple of green olives and a tomato slice, then fold it over and tie closed with string. Use something strong and durable, like twine, and wrap it around the entire nacatamal a couple of times, first around the width and then lengthwise.

Take a large pot and place a small metal lid or other object in the bottom to act as a kind of platform. Arrange the half-dozen leftover banana leaves on the platform and fill the pot about a quarter full with water. Carefully arrange the nacatamales on the bed of leaves and steam for two to three hours.

Nacatamales keep well and can be steamed or reheated in a microwave or pan of boiling water. Simply cut away the string and eat right out of the leaf. Traditionally, nacatamales are served with plain white bread and strong coffee but nothing else.

NICARAGUAN NACATAMALES

1 cup rice

12 large banana leaves

3 large baking potatoes

4 cups masa harina

3/4 cup lard, melted

1/4 cup milk

6 cloves garlic

3 onions

3 minced green bell peppers

1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder

5 to 6 tomatoes

1 1/2 teaspoons ground achiote

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 teaspoon chile powder

16 large green olives, pitted and sliced

3/4 cup raisins

Soak rice in water to cover 2 hours. Drain and set aside.

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add banana leaves, 1 at a time, and simmer until soft and pliable, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

Peel 1 potato and cook in simmering water until very tender. Mash potato in large bowl and mix in masa harina. Add melted lard and milk and mix well.

Mince 3 cloves garlic and 1 onion and stir in along with bell peppers. Set aside.

Cut pork meat into 1/2-inch cubes and place in large bowl. Set aside.

Grind 3 tomatoes, remaining 2 onions, remaining garlic, achiote, pepper, salt, vinegar and chile powder in food processor until fairly smooth, about 10 seconds. Adjust seasoning. Add sauce to pork and stir to combine.

Peel and slice 2 remaining potatoes and keep in water until ready to assemble nacatamales. Slice remaining tomatoes and set aside.

To assemble nacatamales, spread 1/2 cup masa in 3x5-inch rectangle on large section of banana leaf (about 12x18 inches). Top masa with 1/3 cup pork mixture, then 2 tablespoons soaked rice, then 2 sliced olives, then 8 raisins (about 1 teaspoon). Then top with 2 slices each of tomato and potato. Top this with 1/2 cup more masa and spread to cover filling. Pinch edges together to seal. Fold banana leaf over and secure with kitchen twine.

Put 1 to 2 inches of water in large pot. Bunch any leftover banana leaves in water in bottom of pot; if none, put rack or wadded foil in water in bottom of pot. Pile tamales loosely on top of leaves, rack or foil (tamales should not touch bottom of pot), cover and steam until masa is firm, about 2 1/2 hours.

Makes about 12 tamales.

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.

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