Today I am introducing Colombian tamales. This means an assortment of meat and corn mash, which is steamed in wrapped banana leaves for about an hour. I don’t think you can imagine how nervous I was when I found out that the local produce owner here in Munich actually could get me fresh banana leaves. So far I had only eaten tamales on vacation in Colombia. Usually they are served for breakfast and devoured with Colombian hot chocolate. However, since this is a savory dish, it will also taste great as the main course for dinner. I had often wondered whether it was possible to make them in Germany. But since I had not seen banana leaves being sold anywhere, I had not attempted Colombian tamales. This was over now! Finally I got hold of banana leaves! And I quickly learned why tamales are usually prepared by the entire family and not one person only. Preparing the tamales definitely was a full-family business. I had listened to stories of Colombians who had nothing else to do than to put their index finger on the yarn so that the designated mom/grandma/aunt could be sure that the tamales were sealed all proper. That was their entire job for the small children, nothing else. Since making tamales does require quite a bit of work and contains many components, usually they are made in large batches, anything below 15 tamales is not worth the effort. And if you keep in mind that Colombian families are large and include many more people than only the nucleus family, it does make sense to prepare 30 or more. Making Colombian tamales felt to me like an accolade of the highest nature and thus I was nervous of whether I could achieve this as a German who happened to be married to a Colombian.
Therefore I started doing research, I watched videos (if you happen to speak Spanish, I can recommend this cute little Youtube video as it shows so clearly that making tamales is a family business and that quantities are so gigantic that you need a through!), I checked recipes, asked my mother-in-law, friends, and consulted the Internet. Colombian tamales, this is something I read over and over again, are always prepared with banana leaves. You may be used to Mexican one which are prepared with corn leaves, but Colombian ones are always prepared with banana leaves. This is actually what gives them their distinct flavor. It took my a while to realize that banana leaves actually were also sold in Asian stores. Normally they are frozen, but that doesn’t mean that they are not as good. And since it is possible to even order them online, feel free to make Colombian tamales in Germany (if you happen to live here).
Colombian tamales are usually filled with two main components: meat, this can be beef, pork, or chicken, and corn mash called “la masa”. Depending on the region you may include sliced potatoes, peas, chickpeas, sliced carrots, rice, hard-boiled eggs, and the like. The most beloved one is the tamal from Tolima (tamal tolimense) and is prepared with two types of pork and a piece of chicken. The idea is to layer all these components in the middle of the banana leaves, then fold all sides over and seal the “parcel” with some yarn. At the end these parcels are steamed in water for about an hour and then you can dig into delicious food. After about half an hour it is going to smell so good in your house, some many flavors! The meat will come through, the distinct smell of the banana leaves, it really is quite an experience and hard to describe.
Since I assume that you are not the experienced tamal maker, I have step-by-step pictures for you below so that your first tamales are a success. Since the tamales from the Tolima region are so popular throughout Colombia, I decided to introduce this one first. At least my husband confirmed that they taste exactly like he remembers and this means something to me. But let’s get going, let’s make some traditional tamales from Colombia!
Credit: Sweet y salado (also in Spanish)
Colombian tamales are a combination of pork meat and corn mash, wish is steamed in banana leaves for about an hour.
- Marinade for the meat
- ½ onion
- 2 bunches of spring onions
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons "color", powder from the achiote tree (can be ordered online)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 480 grams of water
- 500 grams of pork ribs cut in 14 equal pieces
- 500 grams of fresh pork belly, cut in 14 equal pieces
- 7 chicken wings, cut in half
- 1 kg banana leaves (I got mine fresh, but you can often find them frozen in Asia stores)
- Guiso Sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 bunches of spring onions
- 2 garlic cloves
- ½ a red pepper, cut
- 4 tomatoes without seeds
- 1 tablespoon "color", powder from the achiote tree (can be ordered online)
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Additional Filling
- 4 potatoes
- 2 large carrots
- 7 hard-boiled eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- "Masa" or Corn Mash
- 2400 grams of water
- 1 tablespoon of chicken broth powder
- 1 tablespoon "color", powder from the achiote tree, can be ordered online)
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 500 grams of pre-cooked cornmeal
- 150 grams fresh or frozen peas
- 50 grams of lard (optional)
For the marinade process the onion, spring onions, herbs, and water in a food processor until you have a juice. Divide pork ribs and pork belly into 14 equally-sized pieces each and divide the chicken wings in half. Either place the meat with the marinade in a large zip-lock bag or a big container and mix well. Chill in fridge overnight tightly covered.
Cut the banana leaves in rectangles of about 50cm. I used three leaves per tamal, a larger one as the basis, a medium one and a small one on the top. Using a damp towel, clean both sides of the leaves. After that, spray each leaf with water and "burn" on medium low on both sides. You will notice that this will help for the leaves to be more elastic and that they break less when you bend them. I did this via our crepe maker, you may do this in a large frying pan or the stovetop. Once prepared like this, you can keep the banana leaves covered overnight. It is also possible to freeze the banana leaves if covered tightly.
For the guiso sauce cut the chopped onion and garlic and fry in olive oil in a frying pan until translucent. Then add cut pepper and tomato and fry for another few minutes. You can also prepare the sauce a day in advance. Seson with salt and pepper to your liking. Set aside.
Peel potatoes and carrots and cut in thick slices. Place in a bowl. Boil and peel the eggs and cut in half.
For the corn mash place water and all ingredients except for the corn meal, peas and lard in a large pot and heat up, make sure not to boil. Once it is close to boiling, add the corn meal while stirring, reduce the heat to low. It will appear lumpy, try to reduce the lumps while stirring. Once you have a mash, add the peas and lard. Set aside.
The next day fry all the meat with a bit of oil in a frying pan for a few minutes on each side. I used two frying pans and did this in two rounds. They idea is for the meat to get some more flavor this way. It also helps to reduce the steaming time of the tamales.
Stack 3-4 banana leaves per tamal on top of each other creating a rectangle. Place two to three tablespoons of the corn mash in the middle of the rectangle. Then press one slice of carrot and two slices of potato for each tamal around the corn mash (see pictures). Place the three pieces of meat, half a boiled egg and one spoon of guiso sauce on the top. Top it all off with about one tablespoon of corn mash. Fold all four sides to the center until you have a parcel. Wrap tightly with some yarn. See this as an excercise of wrapping gifts just with yarn. It is important that the filling does not touch any water. Creating the parcels works best with two people. Repeat procedure with all fourteen tamales.
In one or two large pots get about 4cm of hot water to a boil. Since the tamales are steamed, not cooked, I use a strainer. Put tamales inside once the water is boiling and cover with a lid (see picture). Steam for about an hour, adding further water as need be. Once done, place a tamal on a plate and let sit for a few minutes. Then cut open and enjoy.
It is possible to freeze tamales. I recommend freezing them already steamed. Let first come to room temperature then steam for about 15-20 minutes. If you wish to freeze tamales, I recommend preparing them without the boiled egg.