Nacatamales Are the Fatty, Meat-Filled Tamales of Nicaragua

Nacatamal is the Nahuatl, or Aztec, word for meat tamale. It’s the oily, fatty cousin of the Mexican tamal, and the Millón family in Nicaragua has been making them for 50 years.

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Oct 12 2015, 3:00pm

Every weekend for the last half century, the smell of lard and corn has filled the Millón family's house in Nicaragua. The home is located in the city of Leon, worn down by history but refreshed occasionally by a thick layer of mustard-hued paint.

The aroma comes out faint at first, but as afternoon heat hits, it expands until even the neighbors notice it.

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Wilton and his aunt Mercedes. Photos by the author.

From Monday to Thursday, there are no signs in front of the Millón house; it blends in well with the other residences on the block. But on Fridays, at exactly noon, hungry people start dropping by and eventually, a family member remembers to put out a sign.

"Autenticos Nacatamales Millón," it brags in bold rainbow letters on white. "Con 50 Años De Experiencias."

The translation: "Authentic Nacatamales Millón. With 50 Years Of Experience."

Nacatamal is the Nahuatl, or Aztec, word for meat tamale. It's the oily, fatty cousin of the Mexican tamal. Instead of corn husks, it's wrapped with plantain leaves. Instead of being steamed, it's boiled.

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A basket of nacatamales.

The dish is a glorious and very heavy symphony of corn masa, lard, vegetables, rice, and achiote-flavored pork—tied together with greasy dark plantain leaves until it looks like a giant present. Those are the obvious ingredients.

Aesthetically, it's not flattering; the appreciation comes after the tamale is undressed. If you have a tuned palate and a distinguishing eye, you'll spot hints of chile, spearmint, potato, onions, raisins, olives, and bell peppers. Pay attention—those are all in there. The soft, oily masa and the pork are the main attractions, but like a good song, finely infused subtleties can dip in deep and get stuck in your head.

Composition-wise, it is the ideal Nicaraguan dish. Like the country, it is a combination of both indigenous and Spanish influences. There are usually up to 15 ingredients in a nacatamal. According to the Millóns, seven of those ingredients are Spanish and seven of them are indigenous. Mint, corn, and annatto seeds for the achiote paste, for example, are native ingredients. Rice, olives, and raisins are Spanish-introduced, as are potatoes. The Spaniards reportedly brought the potato in from Peru.

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The interior.

Now, every Nicaraguan has had nacatamal at least once in their life. Usually obtained from people's homes, it's as much of fixture in Nica life as church on Sunday mornings. And like church, it's a weekend-only affair. The Millóns sell their nacatamales from Friday afternoon to Sunday. It's an item traditionally reserved for breakfast, paired with one of two beverages: Coca-Cola or black coffee. Some folks will demand white bread or fresh tortillas on the side.

"It makes sense to eat them on weekend mornings," Juan Manzanares, my Nicaraguan Spanish translator tells me. "If you eat them during the week, you'll be too full to function. The weekends are the only time we have to sit down and properly digest."

And while the Millóns are one of hundreds of families in the country that produce this national specialty, what makes their business particularly beloved among locals in Leon is their adherence to regional traditions.

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Preparing the masa and other fillings.

For the Millóns, custom dictates that a nacatamal is made from scratch and without additives like pre-made corn flour or trendy ingredients like tomatoes. Tomatoes, the Millóns tell me, are promore of feature of nacatamals in southern cities like Managua. Of course, what is traditional can be a very subjective matter.

"We pay a lot of attention to the quality. We don't innovate. We make everything step-by-step the way we were taught," says 27-year-old Wilton Millón, the head of the business. "I am a fourth-generation nacatamal vendor. For as long I can remember, I remember nacatamal."

We're in the back of his house on a Saturday morning, surrounded by family. His uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins all sit around a large table—wrapping the ingredients inside large plantain leaves.

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Wrapping the nacatamales.

Wilton waxes poetic about the process, fixated on the concepts of tradition and quality. Eventually he gets into childhood memories, and talks about how the family used to kill the pigs for the nacatamal right in their backyard.

He shows me two large female pigs in a pen. They weigh about 200 pounds each and are delivered to the family from Matagalpa weekly. The two sows are scheduled for next week's nacatamal production.

"Killing the pig here was always the most exciting part," he says. "But today, because of health reasons, we kill them in regulated facilities."

No part of the pig is ever wasted. The blood is converted to blood cake and the skin is deep-fried to make chicharrón. Leftover parts are reserved to cook adobada (marinated pork) or chorizo. The family sells these dishes along with their nacatamal.

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Aura, the mother, prepares to cook the achiote-marinated pork.

Wilton's mother Aura Lilliam Munoz walks by with a large helping of raw pig meat and throws it in a bubbling cauldron of oil. She and her sister, Mercedes Munoz, oversee the business. Mercedes sits at the large table with the rest of the relatives, layering vegetables on pork on masa on leaves.

The sisters inherited the tradition from their great-grandmother, the matriarch of the business. "It was because of the economy. She saw a demand and decided to fill it," Aura explains.

And 50 years later, the demand is still strong.

Every week, 600 nacatamales are produced and sold out of the Millón living room. Every week, their house greets up to 400 clients and every week, they slaughter two large pigs and use up to 840 plantain leaves. It's 40 cordobas (about US $1.50) for a regular-sized nacatamal and 50 cordobas (nearly $2) for a slightly larger size.

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Wilton with his family's nacatamales.

Three years ago, they were clocking in as many as 1,200 tamales a week, but were forced to cut down when one of the three siblings left the family business. A divorce and subsequent broken heart cut down the Millón's nacatamal production by half.

Even so, the family refuses to wholesale or outsource their labor. The production of the Millón nacatamal has always remained within the family, and they intend to keep it that way.

It's an admirable decision considering the amount of effort it takes to produce one nacamatal. Wilton draws me a diagram.

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The process takes a whopping four days. The heaviest part is the making of the corn flour by a method called nisquezado. Nisquezado refers to the process of boiling maize with lime, which breaks down the corn and makes it into masa, or corn flour. This takes an entire day.

Meanwhile, the family has to prepare the vegetables and pork. A medley of carrots, potato, ayote, bell peppers and onions are cut into small pieces, mixed with rice and seasoned with mint, chile criollo, raisins, and olives. Pigs are slaughtered, cooked, rendered for fat, and then marinated with homemade achiote paste and salt. The product is wrapped in plantain leaves with chunks of lard and then boiled for at least four hours. The family has been at this all day. Work starts at a ghastly 1 AM. The family does this every week and they're appropriately proud of it. After all, nacatamales are in their bloodline. Wilton tells me that he majored in food engineering and grew up with the intention of carrying on the family business.

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"What about your kids?" I ask. I think of his young daughter; I had spotted her in pink, looking on from the corner. "Will they continue on the nacatamal business when they're older?"

"I keep the tradition for myself," Wilton says. "I'll teach my daughter the same way I was taught, but ultimately she's the one who will decide."

Address: Autenticos Nacatal Millón: Ermita de San Pedro, 20 vrs. abjo. Contiguo a predio vacio, casa color Amarillo. Leon, Nicaragua; 2311-2856