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Doña Paula’s Tamales From Belize

belize tamales

Kendra Alfaro Ruiz makes these Belize-style traditional tamales steamed in plantain leaves just like her grandmother, Doña Paula, taught her. ”It was her most special recipe,” recalls Kendra—they were made for the Christmas holiday every year con mucho amor.

Paulina Coleman Alfaro, Kendra’s grandmother, lived in a small village called Benque Viejo del Carmen in western Belize. She was an amazing cocinera and Kendra admires the care and attention to detail that her grandmother put into all of her authentic Belizean dishes. Doña Paula especially loved to make these prized chicken tamales (or bollos, as she called them) in large batches, reports Kendra, because she knew all of her children and grandchildren loved them.

Rather than rushing her tamale making, Doña Paula would wake up at 4 a.m. the day-of to start making the masa, the traditional red sauce called col, and the chicken filling, says Kendra, who now lives in Orlando, Florida with her family.

Waking up pre-dawn to help make them wasn’t easy for Kendra back then (she was a teenager), but she still lovingly remembers the fun times she and her abuela had together in and out of the kitchen when she was growing up. She also remembers the weekend Doña Paula officially passed down her recipes and cooking techniques to Kendra to keep the food traditions alive in their family. ”My grandma taught me when I got married. She came to my house for a weekend in my tiny apartment and taught me how to cook several things that are important to her.”

That weekend is when Kendra learned how to make these tamales. Kendra loves them even more now since they remind her of a time when her grandmother was still with them. “She is greatly missed by all,” says Kendra of Doña Paula. “Born: June 22, 1928. Sunset: May 28, 2019. My gran means the world to me. I’ve spent summers, holidays, birthdays, everything with her! I miss her everyday but I am rewarded when I dream of her! She has never left me.”

To this day, Kendra still only makes Doña Paula’s beloved tamales once a year on Christmas, the same day her abuela work up at 4 a.m. to start the preparations for their family holiday feast every year. 

Belize Tamales Cooking and Serving Tips

Kendra offers these tips for making their Belizean tamales, which have their roots in her homeland’s Mayan food heritage: “For the cooked chicken, in Belize we use stewed chicken already made in our recado paste. And add one small piece of pollo meat to each tamal. Add chopped cilantro onions and any type of [chile] pepper. My favorite is habanero! Gives it a great taste.”

When serving, Kendra’s family traditionally accompanies these tamales with frijoles negros. ”My father’s favorite was when my grandma added black beans. I believe it is because my grandpa requested some to be made for him” as a side dish one time and everyone loved it. ”It became a specialty my grandma made for her children” from that day on. 

Other family-famous dishes in Kendra’s family include their Mexican-style Familia Kitchen Recipe Contest-winning mole : Aunt Coty’s Mole with Guajillos, Cocoa and Peanuts.

No matter their origin or style of recipe, if they use corn husk or banana leaves, tamales are a prized dish throughout much of Latin America, served on the most special of occasions.

A Celebration of Tamales Around el Mundo

Curious about tamales around el mundo—and the many names they go by?

No matter their origin or style of recipe, if they use corn husk or banana leaves, tamales are a prized dish throughout much of Latino cultures, served on the most special of occasions. If you want to try other versions of this ancestral comida, check out Familia Kitchen’s family-famous recetas for these masa-stuffed wonders:

Luis’ Guatemalan tamales;
Liliana’s Venezuelan beef, pork and chicken hallacas;
Michelle and Pat’s Puerto Rican yuca, plantain, green bananas & pork pasteles;
• Lisa’s Panamanian tamales, coming soon!;
Nanni’s Mexican tamales with pork & guajillo chiles;
• We even celebrate legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s favorite red pork tamales!

If you want to go deeper, check out our go-deep history of tamales in Belize, Mexico and across Latinx cultures.

Ready to Try Doña’s Tamales from Belize?

Doña Paula’s Tamales From Belize

4 from 3 votes
Recipe by Kendra Alfaro Ruiz Cuisine: Belizian
Servings

12

servings
Prep time

3

hours 
Cooking time

1

hour 

40

minutes

Ingredients

  • Make Your Masa
  • 1 ½ lbs 1 ½ corn flour for tamales

  • ¾ cups ¾ vegetable or olive oil

  • 2 cups 2 water (you may need to add a little more if the dough feels dry)

  • 1/2 tsp 1/2 salt, or to taste

  • Prepare the Col, Belize’s Traditional Red Sauce
  • 3 Tbs 3 vegetable or olive oil

  • 1 Tbs 1 annatto recado paste, premade, available in Latino markets

  • 1 tsp 1 chicken bouillon

  • 1 1 onion, medium, chopped

  • 1 1 habanero or other chile pepper like jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and minced

  • 3 cloves 3 garlic, crushed

  • ½ lb ½ corn flour for tamales

  • 1 cup 1 water, or as needed

  • ½ tsp ½ black pepper

  • salt, to taste

  • 12 12 banana leaves, available frozen at Latino or Asian markets

  • Cook the Chicken for the Filling
  • 3 lbs 3 chicken thighs, or your favorite chicken pieces, skinless

  • 2 Tbsp 2 vegetable or olive oil

  • 3 cloves 3 garlic, chopped

  • 1/2 1/2 onion, chopped

  • 1 to 2 Tbsp 1 to 2 achiote paste, premade, sold at Latino markets

  • 2 tsp 2 salt, or to taste

  • 3 cups 3 water

  • Steam Your Tamales
  • 1 or 2 1 or 2 banana leaves, to line the bottom of your steamer pot

  • 2 to 3 cups 2 to 3 water, to fill your steamer pot 2 or 3 inches

Directions

  • Cook the Chicken
  • In a large caldero or pot, add the chicken. (You can use bone-in for extra flavor and remove the bones after it is cooked, or start with boneless chicken.)
  • Add the chopped vegetables, spices and water. Bring to a boil and lower the heat to medium. Cook at a low boil, uncovered, until chicken is cooked, about 25 minutes.
  • Scoop out the chicken onto a plate. When cool enough to handle, remove bones and cut into large bite-size chunks or shred. Set aside.
  • Make the Col (the Annatto-Flavored Red Filling)
  • Add chopped cilantro, onions and a chopped, a seeded habanero chile or your favorite chile, such as jalapeño, seeded and minced.
  • In a medium pot, mix the salt, pepper, annatto paste, bouillon, onion, garlic and oil.
  • Separately, mix the masa and water until it takes on a pancake-mix like consistency. Push the masa mixture through a strainer. This makes it smooth and gives it a nice gelatin-like texture. Return it to your pot with the simmering col red sauce and stir it in, so that the masa is thoroughly incorporated into the sauce.
  • Continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so, until the mixture turns a light reddish color and the sauce thickens to a creamy paste-like consistency. Set aside.
  • Mix the Tamal Masa
  • Mix the tamales corn flour with the oil, until the masa consistency is as soft as clay.
  • Knead the dough for a couple of minutes with a fork or your hands. “Using your hands works great. That’s how my grandma did it,” says Kendra. 
  • Form the dough into 12 masa balls. Flatten each into a thick, round tortilla shape.
  • Prepare the Banana Leaves
  • You can find banana leaves in the frozen section of Latino or Asian markets.
  • To prepare them, take the package of leaves out of the freezer and let them thaw. Wipe a damp paper towel over each to clean away dust and plant residue. Hold each leaf with tongs over the stove-top gas flame or electric burner, to slightly heat, but not burn it. Cut each leaf into half and spread it out on your work space, flat.
  • Place one flattened masa ball in the center of each section of banana leaf.
  • Build the Tamales
  • With the back of your spoon, make an indentation in the center of flattened masa. Into this round small hole, place about 2 Tbsp of stewed or shredded chicken.
  • Add 1 tsp of the col or red sauce to the center of each tamal. (Kendra says her family loves col, so she adds extra sauce more for additional flavor—”more like a ladle-full.”)
  • Next, fold the banana leaf over the tamal lengthwise and then fold the wide ends, so that it looks like a wrapped present. Tie it closed with kitchen string. (If using foil instead of banana leaves to seal your tamales, wrap a sheet of tin foil tightly around each wrapped square before steaming).
  • Steam the Tamales
  • Place a coin in the bottom of your large steamer or tall pot before filling with water, like Kendra’s grandmother, did to let her know if there is enough liquid in the pot. (Editors: we love this cooking tip: so much!.)
  • Line the bottom of the pot with one or two banana leaves, to cover.
  • Place the tamales horizontally on the leaf. Add 3 cups of water and bring to boil. Lower heat to medium-high, cover and gently boil for one hour, covered.
  • If you hear the penny rattling around, it means the pot needs more water. Add some and let it continue gently boiling.
  • After an hour, check the tamales. If you touch one of the wrapped banana leaves and it feels firm, you will know they are fully cooked and ready.
  • Cool for 2 to 3 hours before eating. To keep up Doña Paula’s and Kendra’s family tradition, serve with beans and rice on the side—one time a year, during Christmas.

Notes

  • The classic Belizian way to prepare this dish is to use chicken stewed in recado rojo, also known as achiote paste. You can find it premade at Latino markets, or make your own from scratch, using annatto seeds.
  • Kendra recommends using one habanero chile pepper for the best sabor! But if this fiery chile pepper is too hot for your family, feel free to substitute any other chile, such as a deseeded and stemmed jalapeño, finely chopped.

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