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It's Nacatamal Time


Nicaraguans in foreign lands always remember the nacatamales.

--Poet Ernesto Cardenal


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.

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