I love, love, love, Panamanian Tamales. In Panama I don’t remember having them often, mainly at Christmastime at friends homes. Now I know it’s because in Panama most people make them from scratch, cooking and grinding the green corn.

I love to make them at Christmas or New Year’s Eve. I freeze the leftover turkey and use that instead of chicken or pork for the filling and it is always good. This year I didn’t get around to making them until this week, and that was with my sweet hubby prodding me to do them.
“Did you buy Masa yet?”
“What can I do to help?”
Guess he really wanted those tamales too.

I sort of follow this recipe from the Cooking Diva (Chef Melissa DeLeon’s) website.
I never follow any recipe to the letter though, so here’s sort of what I do:

Panamanian Tamales

Find some banana, bijao, or platanillo leaves. (NOT easy in Arkansas.) We can get them only at Christmastime at our local Mexican grocery store, but they aren’t usually very fresh and I have to really clean and pick through them. Not to mention they are expensive. This is a major factor in good tamales though so without them I wouldn’t attempt it. Gives it that special flavor!
*Note- I found out the “banana” tree I planted in my yard this year was a platanillo from a Mexican friend of mine. I let the frost kill it without harvesting the leaves, but next year I’ll save some and make them right before the frost!

Masa part:
I don’t do the grinding the green corn to make my own masa. Sorry. I am not a purist with this and just buy Masa from the grocery store. There are no directions on the bag, and Chef Melissa IS a purist and grinds her own corn, so I’ve made this part up over the years and it works really well.

  1. Fill your Kitchenaid bowl up pretty full with Masa (depends on how many tamales you’re making.)
  2. Take at least one stick of butter (I used two- I like butter) and chop it up and using a fork or pastry cutter, cut it into the masa. Then I add about four tablespoons more or less of coconut oil (it’s like shortening but better) or lard if you do that.
  3. Heat to boiling or almost boiling some vegetable broth or bouillon and add it to the mess in the bowl. Mix on low (because it will splash on you!) Add until the mixture is the consistency of playdough. Very soft but not sticky.
  4. I also add to this one small bag of cooked corn. Adds the sweetness.
  5. Then add 2 packets of Goya’s Sazon, and salt and pepper to taste. If you can get culantro (not cilantro) add some here. We can’t get it in Arkansas so I didn’t use it.
  6. Mix, you will probably want to mix with your hands to make sure all lumps are encorporated.


I use leftover turkey but you can use chicken, pork, or veggies also…
1 medium onion chopped finely
1 green pepper chopped finely
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 can of Muir Glen chopped tomatoes
3-4 Tablespoons of tomato paste
1-2 culantro (NOT cilantro) leaves if you have them chopped *I can’t get them so don’t do this.
but I do add a packet of Goya Sazon and 2-3 Tablespoons of Goya’s Recaito, which seems to give it that flavor.
capers (I love capers)
1 can of tomato sauce or some tomato paste with water if you want (or you can just add broth here)
green olives (chopped or not, your preference)
handful of golden raisins or chopped prunes (if you want-very Spanish flavor if you do)
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Saute all of the above in a skillet with some olive oil until it looks yummy.
  2. Taste and add what you think it needs!


Normally I struggle with wrapping these myself using old leaves which are fragile. My wonderful hubby helped this time and proved to be a better tamale maker than myself. Think he’ll get the job from now on!

  1. Take a banana leaf (about a foot for a large tamale) and lay it flat on your work surface.
  2. Put a large dollop of the corn mixture in the mid-center of the leaf. Flatten this out to about the size of a slice of bread or bigger.
  3. Put a generous cooking spoon full of the meat filling in a line down the center of the corn mixture.
  4. Roll the leaf up gently. You’ll have to roll one side up a bit, then fold in the ends and keep rolling up. (Like a burrito) Then tie with twine or string.
  5. Place these in a large pot (I use my canning pot with the jar rack covered with banana leaves) and cover the bottom with hot salted water. 
  6. Steam for one hour!

*Leftovers freeze very well. You can wrap in waxed paper and then put in a baggie or wrap with aluminum foil and just microwave one when you want one!