During a visit to Colombia to showcase food culture and dune driving, chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s ‘Parts Unknown’ sank his knife into a succulent Bogotá tamal and with an off-the-cuff remark, referred to it as a “thing of beauty.”
This “thing of beauty” is served all over town and Bourdain chose to try his at La Puerta Falsa in La Candelaria. This hole in the wall was first coined a dining establishment more than a century ago and operates in a 350 year old colonial house. Even though its name translates as “False Door,” no one really goes there for the history (or to find that false door), rather the guarantee that up its narrow stairwell you’ll be severed a typical Santafereño tamal by the Sabogal family.
The tamal in Colombia is both a festive dish as it can be a slab of corn dough served up as a meal. Like all wholesome and hearty foods it must be prepared fresh and with a respect for tradition. There is nothing worse than a soggy tamal with mistaken ingredients. A tamal Santafereño should have generous portions of pork and chicken bits as well as cubed vegetables such as chickpeas and carrots. If your tamal comes with bacon fat, rice or capers it’s not typical of Bogotá.
A good tamal must also have potent post-festive powers. It must always be a reliable cure for high altitude hangovers, without one having to resort to aspirin. The best tamals are also best accompanied with a spicy Ají (hot pepper) sauce. Eaten all over the country and in combination with a mug of hot chocolate, tamales vary according to which part of Colombia you are in, and even though most countries in South America have some form of tamal, the origin of this food dates to pre-Columbian times and the native word “tamal-li” was the Aztec’s ‘wrap’.
In Mexico, the tamal is a staple dishe of a country which celebrates corns in every meal. Mexican tamales tend to be much spicier than their South American counterparts given the variety of hot peppers. They are also flatter with fewer ‘bits’ thrown in. An Oaxaca tamale combines green peppers with sliced olives. Every country across the region has at one time claimed ownership over this corn dough delicacy.
In Colombia, it is believed that the best tamales come from the department of Tolima, some 150 kilometers east of Bogotá. It is a centrally-located department known for large rice plantations. The tamal tolimense, can be identified by the number of ingredients it hence employs. The yellow corn dough is mixed with rice, chickpeas, a boiled egg, a slice of carrot, cubes of pork, beef and chicken, all seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper and wrapped in the emblematic green plantain leaf.
In another department of Colombia, Antioquia, the tamal is mixed with some of the region’s more typical ingredients such as beans, onions and garlic. In the department of Cordoba, near the country’s Caribbean coast, eggplant is added to the recipe. In the southern department of Cauca, native potatoes and peanuts, also locally grown, are mixed in with the dough, giving them a unique texture and darker complexion. The coarse peanut sauce -pipián- is also added to the tamal as a side, once severed.
On Colombia’s Pacific coast, there is a tamal made from a mangrove mollusk, called the Piangua. The clam-like shell is traditionally harvested by women on beaches near the port of Buenaventura. Instead of cornmeal, the clam extract is mixed with plantain dough giving it a dark green colour and a saltier seafood taste. This tamal won the National Gastronomy Award in 2007 and is quite difficult to find.
If you find daunting the idea of trying to make your own tamal, there’s no need to fret. In Bogotá there is no shortage of tamales and prices vary according to where you are and the quality of the ingredients. Most tamales go for around $3,000 pesos (US$1.75). You can find them easily in supermarkets and the secret is to boil them for around 15 minutes. Remember that the plantain leaves are not to be eaten. In fact they are a natural sterilizer and have traditionally protected the ingredients from external hazards, such as germs and insects.
On any given morning if you find yourself running errands in La Candelaria and within sight of the main Primada Cathedral, look for an open door, a window decked with sweets and a stone sign carved with the name “La Puerta Falsa.” This should be your first stop in sampling Bogotá’s fine tamales.
Calle 11 No. 6-50