Vegetarian Banana Leaf Tamales

Tamales are a Latin American favorite, a delicious filling surrounded by corn meal dough, and steamed until cooked. Most tamales that we have the occasion to eat here in the US are wrapped in corn husks, the method typical of central and Northern Mexico. In the more tropical areas of Mexico and Central America, you’ll commonly find tamales wrapped in banana leaves or plantain leaves, which have their own unique and subtle flavor.

If you’ve never made tamales before, it’s a pretty long and involved process, which is why the making of them is so often a social event. Several dozens are made at a time, with the help of many hands. Tamales freeze well, so it makes sense to make more than you can eat at the time. The following process for making these wonderful banana leaf tamales was taught to me over several days by my good friend Arturo, who calls them “nacatamales”. I have since made them several times for our family with great results. This recipe is for a vegetarian filling, but you could also use a pulled pork or shredded chicken filling. The recipe makes about one dozen tamales; you can easily scale up the recipe. As Arturo says, !Delicioso!

Vegetarian Banana Leaf Tamales Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 pound package of banana leaves, frozen or fresh (available at most Asian or Mexican markets)
  • 2 pounds of already prepared tamale masa, or 3 cups masa harina (masa flour NOT regular corn meal) Note that prepared masa often has lard in it, so if you are going vegetarian on this recipe consider making your own masa from scratch, or buying a vegetarian prepared masa.

Sauce Ingredients

  • 3 dried ancho chilies
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole peppercorns
  • Salt
  • Olive oil

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Calabacitas (Mexican squash)

Filling Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped carrots (about 1 1/2 carrots)
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onion (about 1/2 onion)
  • 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 2 calabacitas (Mexican summer squash, can substitute zucchini), roughly chopped (1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 plum tomatoes, cored and chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small bunch of spinach (about 15-20 leaves), rinsed, stems removed and discarded, chopped
  • Salt
  • 12 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, cut into 3" x 3/4" x 1/2" pieces

Special Equipment Needed

  • A large stockpot with a steamer rack

Method

Prepare the Masa

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If you have purchased prepared masa, you can skip this step. If you have masa harina (masa flour), add warm water to the masa harina, amount according to the instructions on the package. Stir to incorporate. Let sit for several minutes. Need the dough with your hands just enough so that all of the masa flour is incorporated.


Prepare the Sauce

See the instructions in this red chili sauce recipe for preparing the chili sauce with the ancho chilies.

1 Working on one chile at a time, use a paring knife to cut a slit all the way down one side of a chile. Open up the chile and remove the stem and seeds. Remove as much of the veins as you can. Reserve a few of the seeds or veins for adding later if you want added heat. Note when working with chilies, either wear protective gloves or wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling the chilies.

2 Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Flatten out the dried chilies as well as you can and place on the skillet to heat. Press down on the opened chilies and leave for a few seconds. Turn the chilies over and heat a few seconds more. You do not want to toast or burn the chilies, just heat them enough to draw out more of the flavor.

3 Add the chilies to a small saucepan and add enough water so that they are just covered. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes, until the chilies have softened and plumped up. (OR pour place the chilies in a small saucepan and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let sit for 15 minutes, until softened.)

4 Reserving the soaking water, remove the chilies from the pan and place in a blender. Add the garlic, salt, ground pepper, ground cloves, and 1 1/2 cups of the soaking liquid. Purée for 2 minutes, until the sauce is completely smooth. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. If you want more heat, add in a few of the seeds or veins and purée some more. Add more salt if needed.

5 Pour the sauce through a sieve into a skillet. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauce. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to maintain the simmer, cook for 10 minutes. Skim off the foam. Remove from heat.


Prepare the Banana Leaves

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If you are using frozen banana leaves (available at many Asian and Mexican markets), rinse them under warm water to defrost. Cut away the thick edges of the leaves.

If you are using fresh banana leaves, also cut away the thick edges (and central stem if you are using freshly cut leaves). Note that you can cut off sinewy strips from the stem edge of the banana leaves to use as ties for the tamales. Rinse the leaves.

Banana leaves may be brittle and tear when you try to fold them. One way I've heard of to soften them is to soak them in warm, salted water for about an hour. Another way to soften them which I have found effective, is to hold them over heat, either over a gas burner or a hot pan for a few seconds. Heat them only enough so that they turn color (brighter green) and soften. If you heat them too long, they will toast and become brittle again.

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Cut the banana leaves into rectangles about 8"x10". Dry off with a towel.


Prepare the Filling

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1 Coat the bottom of a very large sauté pan with 1-2 Tbsp olive oil. Heat to high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and carrots. Sauté for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the tomatoes and squash. Sauté for a couple more minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until just wilted. Remove from heat.

2 Stir in 1/2 cup of chile sauce to the vegetables. Taste. Add more salt if needed.


Assemble the Tamales

Banana leaves have two sides. One side, the top of the leaf, is deep green and has somewhat thick ridges. The other side, the bottom of the leaf, is lighter green and is smoother. According to Diana Kennedy (and they guy I talked to at the local Mexican market) you will want to place the masa on the lighter green, smoother side of the leaf. (I've done it both ways and haven't found it making that big of a difference to the taste.)

1 Lay out the rectangle piece of banana leaf, light side up. Place a 1/4 to a 1/3 of a cup of masa on the center of the banana leaf. Press down on it with the palm of your hand to spread it out a bit.

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2 Place a small bit (about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon) of the red chili sauce on the masa. Place a strip of Monterey Jack cheese on top. Scoop some of the vegetable mixture (1/4 to 1/3 cup) on top of the cheese and masa.

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3 Bring together the two long sides of the banana leaf and fold over, tucking one edge over the other if you can (if not, don't sweat it). Fold the two remaining sides under the tamale. Secure with a piece of kitchen string, or with some of the long stringy pieces that you can cut from the stem edge of the banana leaves. You can also make ties by pulling off some long thin strips from the larger part of the banana leaf and tying them together to form a long enough strip with which to tie up a tamale. Or, you can skip the tying step all together and just fold them well.

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If upon your first attempt to wrap a tamale the banana leaf is too brittle and tears, you may need to soften the banana leaves by heating them first as mentioned earlier.


Steam the Tamales

1 Place a steamer rack in the bottom of a very large stockpot. Add enough water to almost come up to the level of the steam rack, about 3/4 or 1 inch. Line the top of the steam rack with banana leaves.

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2 Carefully place the tamales in layers on the bottom of the pan. When you have added all of the tamales, add another layer of banana leaves. Cover the pot.

3 Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Steam cook for approximately one hour.

Makes approximately one dozen tamales.

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Many thanks to Sacramento caterer Arturo Vargas for taking several days to teach me the finer points of cooking nacatamales (banana leaf tamales) and introducing me to the local Mexican markets. Arturo is married to Martha, one of my oldest and dearest friends (since we were 13). Pictured here is their 6-year old son Christopher, who was very patient with his dad and me while we cooked tamales at their house. "Why can't you play Elise?!"

Links:
Lots of folks are making tamales. Look up tamales in Food Blog Search to see what some other food bloggers are writing about it.
Columbian banana leaf tamales from Nika's Culinaria

24 Comments

  1. Wendy

    Love the sound of these.
    Fairly certain it’ll be tricky finding banana leaves in the Highlands! Is there an alternative you could recommend?

  2. Rachelle

    Hi, just happened to come by your blog. Your tamales look really beautiful in the picture. They remind me a lot of a nyonya kuih back home in Malaysia that’s called pulut udang (glutinous rice with a prawn sambal filling wrapped in banana leaf and charcoal grilled). Just wondering if masa harina is known by any other names or if there is a substitute? Polenta or corn meal perhaps?

  3. JS

    Wow, do those look good! I can’t wait for my homegrown squash and tomatoes to be ready. You bet this will be one of the first recipes I try. Thank you for another great recipe!

  4. Rachel

    These look delicious! I’m wondering — have you (or do you know of anyone who has) ever tried steaming the tamales in a pressure cooker? I’ve made them that way in the past to cut down on the long steaming time, but since I’ve never had any other tamales I don’t know if it has any effect on the texture or anything. I loved them, but they sure are labor-intensive, so if there’s anything I can do to make them even better, I’m all for it!

  5. Andi

    I love tamales, but it really is a time intensive project. Usually my family makes them over Thanksgiving or Christmas, when everyone is together and we have an assembly line. We’ve always used corn husks, but banana leaves certainly look like an interesting twist.

  6. mai

    Oooh, tamales with banana leaves rock! Many of the hispanic restaurants around us are Salvadorean and they often serve these. Now if only we can find a good corn husk tamale in our parts … (Long time reader, first time commenter, really love what you do!)

  7. Garrett

    We had tamales in lieu of a traditional Christmas dinner this last season with the family. Was an excellent change from the usual turkey and mashed potatoes!

  8. Abby

    Yum! Ditto on the squash, which for us will probably be this week! I’m also always game for any recipe that allows me to freeze a few meals for the future.

  9. Preeta

    Elise, this looks utterly fabulous! What a delicious *and* impressive party dish it would make! I notice another Malaysian reader above — I grew up in Malaysia too, and there, banana leaves are pretty ubiquitous. They are used to steam or grill all sorts of things in (fish, glutinous rice) but also, traditionally, as plates among us South Indians (nowadays we use ceramic plates at home like everyone else, alas). “Banana Leaf Rice” is something you should try if you’re ever in Malaysia — a huge mound of rice accompanied by a dozen or so South Indian curries. You eat the lot with your fingers, and when you’re done, folding the leaf in half is the only way there is of stopping the server from heaping more food onto it. I think one way of folding the leaf (up vs. down?) is considered polite and the other is impolite, but now I can’t remember which is which, so ask someone else when you go :-) .

  10. fran

    Here in Chile there is something similar to tamales, called Humitas. They’re made of corn, basil, milk, butter and seasoning (and something else but I can’t remember), then everything is made puree; this paste is wraped in corn leaves and boiled. It’s a delicious meal, usually served with fresh tomatoes, and some people put some sugar on it…they remind me of long summer evenings in the beach :)!

    A “variation” is pastel de choclo, which is the same pure without the basil, but this time poured in a little pottery bowl over boiled chicken, raisins and boiled eggs; sprinkled with some sugar and put in the oven. It’s almost like a creme brulee!

  11. sumi

    Hello Elise, I am new to the blogging world, and I have to say your website is fab !!! absolutely Fab. I hope to be posting by the weekend. Hope you come for visit !

    your recipe is wonderfu, in singapore we cook and serve alot using this method of wrapping in banana leaves. We use glutinous rice with sweet and savoury filling instead. The mini versions are called dumplings. Absolutely lovely !

  12. Elise

    Hi Wendy – Almost any Asian market will carry banana leaves, usually frozen. Tamales themselves can be wrapped with other things, even avocado leaves, but more commonly dried corn husks. Do a search for tamales using http://www.foodblogsearch.com to find what other food bloggers have written about making tamales.

    Hi Rachelle – There is no substitute for masa harina, other than buying the fully prepared masa itself. Masa harina is a special corn flour that has been treated with calcium hydroxide (lime) which releases nutrients in the corn, making it easier to digest. “Maseca” is a common brand of this corn flour which is available at any Mexican market. You can actually make your own masa from dried corn kernels, but it is a rather complicated process and you need a stone-grinding mill.

    Hi Rachel – I’ve never steamed tamales in a pressure cooker. Don’t know why it wouldn’t work.

    Hi Tori – It is really hard to source Mexican ingredients around Boston. If you find a good place there, would you please let us know?

    Hi Fran – Hmm, those humitas sound wonderful.

    To all – I love the suggestions for the Asian dishes that use banana leaves, thank you! I had no idea they were used so much in Asian cuisine.

  13. steph

    Hi Elise,

    I was excited to see this Tamale recipe as my parents are from Guatemala. These tamales are called paches there and the dough is made with either rice or potatoes instead of masa. Either way they are out of this world. Thanks for posting this recipe. I like for others to be aware that tamales are made more than one way and that central america has great food to offer!!

  14. Elise

    Hi Steph – I stand corrected on my assertion that there is no substitute for masa harina, thank you! I’ve never heard of making them with rice or potatoes. Sounds wonderful.

  15. Marlene

    Hey…..just want to say…..what FUN??
    Thanks AGAIN for you wonderful recipes!

    Cheers Marlene from Switzerland

  16. Linda in the Evergreen State

    Elise,

    These tamales wrapped in banana leaves look very appealing. A nice change from the corn husk meat filled tamales.

    Linda In Washington State

  17. Kate

    Hi Elise,

    I am in grad school, and my husband and I have very little time to prepare meals ourselves. I have always loved the idea of cooking but have never been very good at it.
    I want to thank you so much for your wonderful recipes! We have made home cooked meals all week using the recipes on your blog. I made these tamales today, and they are so good! I am quite pleased with myself. I used fresh banana leaves which were pretty difficult to work with at first. Your advise was great.

    Thanks again, it is such a joy to visit your blog!

    Kate

  18. kathy

    I found your site after running out of corn husks here in Quintana Roo (Mexico). Luckilly, we have bananas growing everywhere. I’ve always seen the flat square type of tamal with banana leaves but didn’t know exactly how to tie them. From my experience today, I found you can roll them very similar to corn husks and not tie them (but they won’t be square packages). Without your site I’m not sure I would have had the patience to keep trying to figure it out.

  19. Renata

    Dear Elise:

    I would like to give you my very humble advise…
    The way you are doing tamales is ok, however you must notice they are a little dry (the masa)… traditional tamales recipes have lard as a key ingredient, if you don’t want to use it you can use shortening.
    The ratio should be 1 kilo of maseca and 1/2 kilo of shortening. The way you prepare it is beating the shortening on high speed until it is light and fluffy, then kneading it into the masa already hydrated.

    My grandmother cuts the shortening in the maseca and after that she adds stock or water to the masa. Beating is the ‘modern’ way to do it and you will not end having that uncomfortable feeling of grease on your palate.

    I highly recommend you to try this recipe again adding the shortening, you’ll be surprised how moist and shiny will your tamales turn out, they even taste better. I am so glad to read that you are not a ‘light’ or ‘low fat’ cooking person… it takes all the flavor out of the food… and consistency too, as you will find if you try this way of making tamales.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, from Mexico City.

  20. Crystal

    Thanks for the wonderful recipe. I made these tamales using the addition of the shortening to the masa. They were delicious!! Also the steps were very simple to complete, but time consuming. It took me about 5 hours from start to finish (without steaming), but Im sure I took a few breaks! I made these the night before, wrapped in saran wrap and refrigerated until the next day. I prepared them for guests who liked them so much they took a bag home with them. Thanks again for a great recipe that I will continue to make again and again.

  21. Marcia

    I just returned from a month in Guatemala. One week I stayed with a Guatemalan grandmother, Lidia. She spoke no English yet we still had a wonderful time cooking together on her little ranchito near Coban. We made delicious tamales with rice instead of corn masa. We used two layers of large green leaves, each different and neither banana. There we were able to buy the leaves fresh in the outdoor markets. I was trying to refresh my memory of that recipe when I landed on this recipe. I haven’t tried these yet, but I have to say the rice tamales are the best I’ve tasted in my 50 years of loving the Mexican cuisine of my native California and travels in Mexico. I’m happy to find the blogs here. I’m going to turn my search to the asian glutenous rice and see if I can refresh my memories from there. If it works I’ll share my results here… the first rice tamales on line perhaps?

  22. Michelle Ayala

    Thanks so much for sharing this recipe. I did it the night before last and they came out terrific. I just love serving these with extra vegetable filling on top. So yummy! (And easy.) Happy New Year!!

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