Steeped in decades of heritage, Tamales Colombianos is such an attractive dish that it’s even become a compliment—Hot tamales, anyone? People say they taste like corn and sunshine! And who wouldn’t like a bit more sunshine in their lives? Allow me to take your tastebuds on a culinary adventure to vibrant Colombia. Let’s discover Tamales Colombianos!
Tamales Colombianos History and Curiosities
‘Tamales’ literally translates to ‘wrapped food.’ They are protein (pork, chicken, etc.) and vegetables enclosed in delicious corn dough (masa), wrapped and steamed in banana leaves or corn husks. The people of Mesoamerica had been enjoying Tamales since 7000BC. The fact that tamales were easy to make, store, and transport made them a creative meal variation of the staple masa flour.
A most likely contributor to its popularity and spread is how easily it can be adapted to suit different tastes. The filling could be any readily available protein; it was and still is, a great way to incorporate leftovers and reduce food waste.
The origin of this ancient comfort food is most attributed to the Aztec; this Mesoamerican culture flourished in what is now known as Central Mexico. Tamales most likely reached Columbia through Spanish influence, as Spaniards had lots of contact with the Aztecs.
Columbians truly embraced this homey meal. There are now different standard versions of Tamales Colombianos all over the country like Tamales Tolimenses (Tolima), Tamales Hallacas (Eastern plains), Tamales Arrieros (Antioquia) etc.
You’re sure to get your fill of different kinds of tamales if you visit Colombia during festive seasons like Christmas! It’s a bit like the way there’s always a Turkey at Thanksgiving. The scent of tamales is the scent of celebration! Combine it with a drink of hot chocolate, and you’d be head over heels in love.
This popular version of Tamales Colombianos really packs in the protein. Stuffed with three different kinds of pork meat (pork belly, sirloin, boneless ribs), a nice piece of chicken, and a boiled egg. Everything is rolled up with rice, peas, potatoes, and masa dough into a ball shape before being wrapped up in banana leaves and steamed.
Unlike the tamales tolimenses, most tamales are shaped like pyramids or rectangles. So, if you’re ever offered a little tamale ball of delight, you know exactly where it’s from; the center-west of Columbia, Tolima.
Colombian Tamales vs Mexican tamales
Which one would win in a food battle? It depends on what the criteria are. It’s like the apples and oranges of tamales. It all really comes down to what you’re craving.
Do you like Spicy? If you do, then you would definitely lean closer to tamales Mexicano. Mexicans like it hot and incorporate ingredients such as whole jalapeno peppers, chili anchos, habaneros and a good number of other spices. But suppose you’re in the mood or generally prefer to savor the unique tastes of the masa and meat combo, then tamales colombianos will give you that warm, down-to-earth experience that’s the mark of any comfort food.
Next up, lard or no lard? Colombian tamales are often the low-fat choice out of the two. Even though pork is high in fat, unlike Mexican tamales, the lard is not used in preparing the dish. Colombians tend to opt for olive oil instead.
Personally, the best tamale is always the one right in front of me.
Tamales Colombianos Recipe
Enough chit-chat. Let’s get cooking. Here’s all you need for classic tamales colombianos. Kindly note that this dish is a two-day adventure.
- 1 large onion
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- 2 large bell peppers, chopped
- 4 scallions, chopped
- 4 tablespoons ground cumin
- 3 tablespoons Sazon Goya
- 2 cups of water
- 2 lbs of pork ribs, cut into small pieces
- 1 lb pork belly, cut into small pieces
- 12 chicken pieces (I prefer thighs)
- 4 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced, soaked in water with salt and color
- 2 large or 3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced, soaked in water with salt
- 1 lb Colombian longaniza, Colombian chorizo or kielbasa cut into small pieces
- 15 sprigs Italian parsley
- 8 cups water
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 chicken bouillon
- 1 tbsp food coloring/all-purpose seasoning (Triguisar, Sazón Goya)
- Salt to taste
- 1½ lb pre-cooked white cornmeal
- 1 cup (150 g) sweet peas (frozen or raw)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 4 green onions, chopped
- 1 white onion, chopped
- 4 seedless tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp Sazon Goya
- 1 chicken bouillon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- For wrapping:
- 16 oz bags banana leaves
- Kitchen twine
- Combine all the marinade ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend till smooth. Note: the marinade process is better done the night before.
- Place the pork belly, pork ribs and chicken pieces (without skin) in a large bowl or Ziploc/plastic bags. Add the marinade, and rub the pieces of meat around in it so each piece is entirely covered in the marinade. Cover or seal, and allow to rest in the refrigerator overnight.
- If using frozen banana leaves, leave them out overnight to thaw. If using fresh banana leaves or corn husks, make sure to rinse them in hot water, so they’re clean and easy to fold without cracking.
- Cut your banana leaves into rectangles (about 50cm) so they’re ready for use.
- Peel and chop your potatoes into thick slices and place them in water in a medium bowl. Add salt to the water and let it sit.
- Peel and chop the carrots into slices and place them in water in a bowl. Add salt to the water and let it sit.
- To make the guiso or creole sauce, pour olive oil into a large pan and add your onions over medium heat. Allow to fry for about 3 minutes or until translucent. Then, add your green onions and garlic. Allow to cook for 1-2 more minutes.
- Next, add the red bell pepper and the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low and allow to cook for about 8-10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add the Sazon goya seasoning, cumin, chicken bouillon salt and pepper. Stir well and add about ½ or 1 cup of water to thin it out.
- To make the masa dough: In a large pot, pour the water for the masa and add the onion powder, garlic powder, chicken bouillon, all-purpose seasoning and salt. Heat the water on the stove but don’t let it boil.
- Then, slowly add the pre-cooked cornmeal and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula until it becomes a thick moist paste. If your masa gets dry, add some more water. Now, add the peas to the masa, stir and take off the stove.
- To wrap: Place two banana leaves (more, if needed), one on top of the other in the form of a cross. Ensure the underside (the side with the grooves or veins) is facing up, and the top side (smooth) is facing down.
- Place ¼ of ½ cup of masa dough in the center. Add one tbsp of guiso over the masa. Then place on a sprig of parsley over the guiso. Add 2 potato slices and 2 carrot slices in the masa, then 3 tbsp chickpeas.
- Now add 1 piece of longaniza/chorizo/keilbasa, a pork rib, a piece of pork belly and a piece of chicken over the masa. You can place some more masa on top if you like.
- Close the tamal by placing the sides of the leaf towards the center and tucking them in. Fold in the top and bottom sides to make a packet. Tie it all up with kitchen twine. Repeat process for each tamale.
- To cook the tamales: Fill ¼ of a large pot with water and season with salt. Then, place a steam rack inside the pot to prevent the tamales from touching the bottom of the water, bring the water to a boil. You could also use leftover banana leaves/corn husks, old newspapers or sticks instead of the steam rack. Just don’t let the tamales touch the bottom of the pot because if the water evaporates too quickly, the wrapping might start to burn.
- Place the tamales on the steam rack or your substitute of choice. Allow to steam on medium heat for about 2hours. Check often to make sure the water hasn’t all evaporated, and top up the water when needed.
Once the tamales are ready, take them out and let them rest for a few minutes before serving.
Let me know how your tamales colombianos came out in the comments. And yes, I’d like to see pictures!
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