Michelle Shellabarger: Tamales Panamanian Style {Foodie Friday}

Tamale Collage Panamamama 

 Growing up in Panamá I always looked forward to the holidays because it meant…


Not the corn-husked wrapped, cheese smothered type that Arkansas is so famous for (which I have discovered are fantastic in themselves) but the fat, presents of corn dough and favorful meat wrapped up with banana leaves and twine.   No big party was complete without this special treat.  The steamy smell brings back wonderful memories of family and friends.  Traditional tamales take a long time to make because you cook the meat, cook, husk & grind green corn, find platanillo leaves etc.  Then put it all together.  A true labor of love.

 I learned how to make tamales by watching, but my recipe is adapted from a traditional recipe and is much simpler.  I don’t eat pork (thus, no lard or ham) and I’m not a total purist (meaning I don’t cook and grind up the corn myself.) I always like to make them after the holidays and use leftover turkey to make a great meal on New Year’s eve. (Freeze the turkey in bags and use it to make them a few weeks later.)  You could easily make them vegetarian by simply using veggies instead of the meat.


The hardest part of making the tamales is in the wrapping. Finding the banana or platanillo leaves can be difficult depending on where you live.  Check out your local Latin grocer (sometimes Asian or Indian stores have them also.)  Try and find fresh, pliable, very green leaves.  The fresher the leaves are the easier to wrap the tamales.  Wrapping might take a couple of tries, just remember it’s like wrapping a ribbon around a package!


Tamales Panamanian Style
Yields 10
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For masa dough
  1. 1 cup of butter
  2. 4 Tablespoons of coconut oil
  3. 4 cups of masa
  4. 2 Tablespoons of baking powder
  5. 4 cups of broth or bouillon (I like to use vegetable or chicken)
  6. 1 cup of cooked sweet corn off the cob (frozen or canned)
  7. salt & pepper to taste (this will vary depending on your broth)
  8. achiote paste or powder for coloring if desired
For Filling
  1. ½ of an onion, finely diced
  2. 1 large clove of garlic, diced
  3. 1 green bell pepper, diced (or 7 aji criollo peppers, if you can find them)
  4. 4 cups of leftover cooked chicken or turkey (more or less is fine too!)
  5. 1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes
  6. 4 Tablespoons of tomato paste
  7. 1 cup of green Spanish olives (more or less if desired)
  8. 2 Tablespoons of capers if desired (I like more!)
  9. a handful of golden raisins or chopped prunes (if desired)
  10. 1 cup of vegetable or chicken broth
  11. Spice to taste (salt, pepper, Sazon or saffron)
  12. 2 Tablespoon of Goya’s Recaito or 2-3 culantro leaves, chopped *Culantro is used in Panamanian cooking, but is not easily found in the United States. Goya Recaito is a cultantro based sauce that adds a bit of the flavor. Cilantro is NOT the same spice but can be used if nothing else is found, just chop about ¼ cup of leaves and add to sauce.
  13. Banana or plantanillo leaves for wrapping tamales
  14. Cooking twine
  1. Mix masa and baking powder in bowl.
  2. Add hot broth and mix. (Your hands or pastry cutter work well for this.)
  3. Beat butter and oil in mixer and slowly add in masa mix, beating until fluffy.
  4. Add salt & pepper to taste.
  5. For filling pull or chop meat into small bite sized pieces.
  6. Saute onion in large skillet, medium heat, until almost translucent.
  7. Add garlic and peppers and continue cooking until onion is translucent.
  8. Add meat, tomatoes, tomato paste, culantro, and broth and stir, cook for two minutes.
  9. Add olives, capers, raisins and spices. Cook until mixture is warmed through and raisins are plumped.
  10. Cut banana leaves to about 12-15” long pieces and wash & dry leaves.
  11. Spread about 1 cup of masa dough fairly thin, in a square shape in middle of leaf (about the size of a slice of thin white bread.)
  12. Add a few tablespoons of meat mixture in center of masa.
  13. Carefully roll up leaf with masa, tucking ends under as you go. Sometimes the leaves will rip, especially if they aren’t very fresh. Don’t worry, just use another leaf to wrap up the one you are working on. You just don’t want any masa showing that can leak out while cooking.
  14. Take twine and wrap up tamal like a gift, tying a knot fairly tightly.
  15. In a large steamer place water to cover bottom of pan, then banana leaves to cover steamer rack. (I use my canning pot with the jar rack on bottom, water to top of jar rack and banana leaves on top of that.)
  16. Carefully place tamales in layers in steamer on top of rack. On top you can place another leaf to hold steam in nicely.
  17. Steam for about an hour over medium high heat.
  18. Carefully remove tamales, unwrap, and enjoy!
  1. Some people like a sofrito sauce over the tamale, but you don’t have to use anything. I personally like a bit of hot sauce! Any extras will freeze beautifully if you let cool and place in a bit of waxed paper, then freeze in a freezer bag. To reheat just pop in microwave for awhile or re-steam.
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I’ve been a baker, translator, and candle-stick maker, (among other things) now a mom of four trying to live a “green” life in the city.  Chicken keeping, simple living, art and road trips make me happy. I lived mainly in the Republic of Panama til I met my man and moved to Arkansas, which I now call home.













  1. Those look so good but I’m afraid to make them. I took a class at Central Market in Dallas – we made pork tamales and dessert tamales. Yummy but I’d never tackle it in my own kitchen – LOL.

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