Vegetarian Banana Leaf Tamales Recipe

By admin |

Recipe by Melaina Gasbarrino

While tamales are one of the most traditional Central American delicacies, more often than not they contain meat. But since it is Meatless Monday, to one up the creation of vegetarian tamales this recipe will take you to the ends of the earth and allow you to experience the wonderful tastes of Latin America and its tropical counterparts of Mexico and Central America.

Tamales are either wrapped in cornhusks or banana leafs, it all depends on which country or region you are in. This recipe calls for banana leaves, so you can sit back, and pretend your miles away on the beaches of Mexico or Central America.

As creating this tamales is a fairly long and involved process we know you’ll probably want an ice-cold cerveza (beer) in one hand and tamale in the other. Just a little reminder, when working with the chiles you will want to wear protective gloves or wash your hands thoroughly after you handle the chiles, you don’t want to be rubbing your eyes with a chile scent on your hands.

Melaina is from a small town in Ontario, Canada and as an avid environmentalist with a passion for focusing on healthy living. Having traveled the world and written about it every step of the way, she one day hopes to develop unique environmental educational programs for kids. 

For more tips and recipes from Melaina, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Prep Details

Servings: 1 dozen tamales


1 lb package banana leaves

2 lbs already prepared tamale masaor 3 cups masa harina (masa flour)

Large stockpot with a steamer rack


3 dried ancho chilies

2 cloves garlic

2 whole peppercorns


Olive oil


Olive oil

1 cup chopped carrots

1/2 cup chopped onion

3 large cloves garlic, chopped

2 calabacitas, chopped (Mexican summer squash - can substitute zucchini)

2 plum tomatoes, cored and chopped

1 bunch spinach, chopped


12 oz Monterey Jack Cheese, cut into 3" x 3/4" x 1/2'' pieces


 Photo:  Rubí­ Flòrez

Preparing the Masa:
*Please note if you have purchased prepared masa, skip this step.

1. Add warm water to the masa harina (masa flour), amount according to instructions on the package.
2. Stir to incorporate then let sit for several minutes.
3. Need to dough with your hands until all the masa harina is incorporated.

Preparing the Sauce:
1. Take one chili at a time and using a pairing knife cut a slit all the way down on one side of the chili.
2. Open the chili up and remove stem and seeds. Also remove as much as the vein as possible. If you want to add extra heat to the dish after, reserve some of the seeds.
3. On medium heat, heat a large skillet, flatten the dried out chilies, place on skillet and heat. Press down on opened chilies and cook for a few seconds, than flip over and do the same.
4. Add chilies and water to cover to a small saucepan and cover. Bring to a boil then remove from heat and let the concoction sit until the chilies have softened and plumped up, approximately 10 minutes.
5. Reserve the soaking water. Next remove chilies from pan, place in blender and add garlic, salt, ground pepper, ground cloves, and 1 1/2 cups of soaking liquid.
6. Puree for 2 minutes, until sauce is smooth. Taste sauce to adjust seasonings to your liking.
7. Pour sauce through a sieve into a skillet, add tablespoon of olive oil and bring to a simmer. Once simmered reduce heat to maintain simmer and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
8. Skim off the foam and remove from heat.

Preparing the Banana Leaves:
If you're using frozen banana leaves, rinse under warm water to defrost and cut away the thick edges. If you're using fresh banana leaves, cut away the thick edges and central stem and rinse.

If your banana leaves are brittle and tear when you try to fold them not to worry, place them in warm, salted water for approximately an hour and they will then be easier to fold.

Cut leaves into 8x10'' rectangles and dry off.

Preparing the Filling:
1. On high heat add olive oil, onions, garlic and carrots. Stir constantly as you saute ingredients. After a couple of minutes add tomatoes and squash, add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and saute for another couple minutes.
2. Add spinach and cook, until spinach is wilted. Then remove pan from heat.
3. Finally stir in 1/2 cup of chile sauce to vegetables and taste.

Assembling the Tamales:
1. On the light green, smoother side of the leaf place 1/4 to 1/3 cup of masa on the center of the banana leaf. Press down using the palm of your hand to spread it out forming a small circle in the middle of the leaf.
2. Place a teaspoon of red chili sauce on the masa, a strip of Monterey Jack cheese and a scoop of the vegetable mixture (1/4 to 1/3 cup) on top of the masa.
3. To fold the banana leaf, bring the two long sides over and tuck one edge over the other if you can. Fold remaining sides under the tamale.
4. Secure with a piece of string.

Steaming the Tamales:
1. Place a steamer rack in the bottom of large stockpot. Pour water (3/4 to 1'') to almost come up to the level of the steam rack. Line top of the steam rack with banana leaves.
2. Place tamales in layers on banana leaves. As you add layers of tamales place a layer of banana leaves in between each tamale layer.
3. Cover pot. Bring to boil and reduce heat to simmer.
4. Steam cook tamales for about an hour and serve.