Instant Pot Nacatamales are a special occasion and celebratory food native to Nicaragua. Nacatamales are similar to tamales in that masa dough and a filling are wrapped into individual packets using leaves. I taught myself how to make these for a Nicaraguan friend by her request.
Last fall, I met Marcia, a Nicaraguan woman from our church who had battled brain cancer for 21 years. I am grateful I had the opportunity to visit and cook for her a few times before she passed away at the beginning of this year. Marcia was a woman of amazing faith. Love and joy emanated from her the minute you met her. She had the gift of making you feel welcome and loved the first time you met her. Although Marcia had a difficult upbringing, she overcame her circumstances, was able to forgive people who had hurt her, and saw the good in everyone.
The first time I met Marcia, I brought her some lentil soup. To be honest, I don’t even know if she ate it, but I wanted to bring her something. At the time, I did not know that her husband is an exceptional cook. During our visit, she told me a little about Nicaraguan food, including gallo pinto, which I learned to make after my trip to Costa Rica last Spring. Marcia’s eyes lit up at the very thought of gallo pinto.
So, the next time I visited Marcia, I made gallo pinto (using red beans – Nicaraguans prefer red beans to black beans in their gallo pinto) and fried plantains. She was so excited that I had recreated some of her food memories, and ate two bowls of the gallo pinto and a good amount of the fried plantains. Her sister was visiting from out of town and the two of them started talking about other Nicaraguan foods they fondly remembered, including bunuelos (Nicaraguan donut holes made from yucca and queso duro, served with cinnamon and clove scented sugar syrup) and nacatamales.
Although I had no idea what bunuelos or nacatamales were, I knew it was a significant food memory that Marcia and her sister shared from their childhood. One thing I’ve noticed over the years from cooking for people who are sick is they often crave comfort food from their childhood. Food memories stay with us throughout life, especially those from our childhood.
So, I set out to make bunuelos and nacatamales for Marcia, both Nicaraguan comfort foods from her childhood. Although both of these dishes are quite heavy and not very healthy, the purpose of making these foods for Marcia was to provide comfort and nourishment for the soul. And that is exactly what these foods did.
Nacatamales is basically Nicaragua’s version of a tamale wrapped in a banana leaf. From what I can tell, the tamale base for nacatamales is a little more complex, as are the fillings. The base is made with masa harina similar to a Mexican tamale, but it also contains a puree of cooked vegetables (e.g., tomato, onion, green bell pepper). The filling is comprised of a variety of ingredients too – marinated pork, rice, onion, potato, green bell pepper, tomato, capers, green olives and prunes/raisins. Interestingly, nacatamales and tamales are very similar to a Chinese zongzi, bamboo leaf wrapped rice dumpling filled with all sorts of goodies that is traditionally served during the Dragon Boat Festival (some people even refer to zongzi as Chinese tamales).
Marcia did not like onions in her food, so I only included onions in the pureed sauce that was used in the masa dough. Traditionally, sliced onion is also included in the filling.
I found only a few nacatamales recipes online that were written in English, so I ended up watching several YouTube videos (many in Spanish) on how to make nacatamales. The problem was there were no recipes in the videos. So, I modified the recipes I found online to include some of the things I learned from the cooking videos.
Nacatamales are fairly time consuming to make, but they are intended to be a group activity. From what I learned through my research, nacatamales are often made in large quantities for Sunday afternoon gatherings, parties, and special occasions. Usually, a large group of people will help assemble all the nacatamales. By myself, it took five hours from start to finish (including cooking time) to make the nacatamales, but that is because I prepared all the ingredients and wrapped the nacatamales by myself. In addition, it was my first time making them, so it took me a while to figure out how to wrap them.
Making nacatamales takes some time to assemble, but using an Instant Pot to cook them shaves off several hours of cooking time. Normal cooking time is 3-4 hours. I set the Instant Pot to high pressure for an hour, placing the nacatamales on the steaming rack. The only downside was that my 6 quart Instant Pot could only fit four nacatamales at a time, so I had to cook them in two batches.
I sampled one nacatamale and I have to say it is definitely comfort food. Each packet is like a individually wrapped present, so I can understand why Nicaraguans often serve this for special occasions. I will always remember how Marcia’s face and eyes lit up as she devoured the bunuelos and nacatamales I made her.
I feel incredibly blessed to have had the privilege to cook for Marcia and to experience her loving and joyful heart firsthand. I also had an “aha” moment from the visits to see Marcia with other women from our church. Each of us used our individual gifts and talents to pour love upon Marcia, whether it was through encouraging words and prayer, a beautifully written card with hearts drawn all over it, the incredibly thoughtful mandala that was created for her memorial service, or these nacatamales. Our gifts complimented each other’s, and together, we were able to do so much more for Marcia than we ever could have done individually.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10
Nacatamales (NIcaraguan Tamales)
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 onion
- 1/2 large green bell pepper
- 3 cups masa harina
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 cup low sodium chicken broth lukewarm, plus more as needed
- 1/2 lime juiced
- 1/2 orange juiced
- 1/2 cup lard
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1.5 pounds boneless pork loin cut into 3/4" cubes
- 1/2 orange juiced
- 1/2 lime juiced
- 1 tablespoon annato oil
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- 3/8 cup long grain rice soaked in water
- 1/4 pound potatoes peeled, sliced 1/4" thick
- 1 large green bell pepper cut into 8 pieces
- 2 medium tomatoes sliced
- 8 green olives
- 8 prunes
- 2 tablespoons capers
Blend tomato, onion, and green bell pepper until completely pureed. Reserve half of tomato mixture for pork marinade (see below).
Place masa harina in large bowl with salt. Add blended vegetables, chicken broth, lime juice, and orange juice. Mix well. Add lard and olive oil and stir until thoroughly incorporated. Cover and let stand 30 minutes.
Place pork in a medium bowl. Add reserved tomato mixture, orange juice, lime juice, annato oil, salt and pepper. Let marinade while you prepare rest of filling ingredients.
Cut banana leaves into roughly eight 10"x10" squares. Tear off eight 12"x12" square pieces of aluminum foil. Place each banana leaf on top of an aluminum foil square.
Spoon about 3/4 cup masa dough in center of banana leaf and spread out. Place two piece of pork on top, followed by a tablespoon of soaked rice, a slice of potato, a piece of green bell pepper and a slice of tomato. Add an olive, a few capers, and a prune.
Bring top and bottom ends of foil together and make a few folds down to meet the tamale. Fold the sides in as if wrapping a present. Tie with string to secure.
Pressure Steaming Nacatamales
Pour 2 cups of water into Instant Pot. Place steamer rack on top and lay 4 nacatamales on top.
Set pressure to high for 1 hour. Let slow release naturally.
Add sliced onion as a filling, if desired.