Colombian Tamales

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Tamales, depending on their country of origin, come in many shapes and sizes.  Despite this, the basic idea is the same.  You get yourself some masa, your filling of choice, then wrap it up in a leaf and boil or steam it.  Several hours later, you’ve got yourself a packet of deliciousness.

Back when my mother was still completely computer illiterate, it was impossible to get her to send me any recipes. Now, I have managed to get her to type some of them out for me, or dictate them over the phone to me.  When a recipe is long, though, she still refuses.  This was how I managed to stay so long without getting her to share her recipe for Colombian tamales with me.  So, off I went to hunt for a recipe online.  What I found was many recipes for Colombian tamales, none of which sounded similar to hers.  The biggest issue I saw was that the masa in all of the tamale recipes I found looked like actual dough, while the tamales my mom makes always had masa that resembled pancake batter.

There is a great injustice going on in this world.

Now, I was determined.  Surely, the world deserves to know of these types of tamales.  More importantly, I deserved to know how to make them.  So, during my last visit to see the family, I made these a special request.  Not only that, but I set out to take copious notes.

The process began several days before my arrival.  You want to start soaking your dried yellow corn about 5 days in advance.  You should change the water several times throughout the soaking duration.  Your meat can start marinating 2-3 days ahead of time.

Colombian tamales corn masa
On the fifth day, drain the corn and wash is thoroughly, scrubbing the corn as you go.  Place the corn in the cup of your food processor and go to town.  You’ll need to add water to it until it comes together into a mixture that looks like very thick cake batter, and is mostly smooth.  If it’s slightly grainy, that’s okay.
Colombian tamales roasted red pepper
Place your red peppers under the broiler for a few minutes per side, then set aside to cool. Once they’re cool, the skins will come right off.


Wash your banana leaves by soaking them in water, then drying them with a cloth or paper towels.  Set them aside for later.

Colombian tamales guiso


Next, you make the guiso! Start by sweating some diced white onion in a pan with vegetable oil. Use lots of oil. You want your guiso to be oily. The oil will lubricate the banana leaves when it’s time to cook the tamales.  Add in some diced green peppers and cook until they are tender.  Now, add some mashed garlic plus chopped cilantro and scallions. And, if you like a little heat, throw in some diced jalapeños or other peppers. Add a can of whole peeled tomatoes and your peeled red peppers into a blender and puree until smooth. Add this to your guiso, then bring to a simmer. Once it starts to simmer, add your seasonings to taste, then remove from heat.


Prepare your meat and your masa for the tamales.  Place some of your masa in a bowl, then add about half a ladleful of guiso to the masa and mix.  Add water to this mixture until it is pourable.  Add some masa and guiso to your meat as well, and work it into the meat with your hands.  At this time, you’ll probably also want to place your water to boil.

Get your ingredients ready for assembly. These tamales are going to have peas, sliced carrots, and potatoes to go with the pork.  Place a rectangle of aluminum foil on top of a shallow (but not too shallow) plate.  Place two pieces of your clean, dry banana leaves on the foil, alternating the direction of the grain line.  Add about half a ladleful of guiso, then your veggies.  Place your meat on top of the veggies, then pour some of your seasoned masa over your meat, followed by a little more of your guiso.  Your tamale is ready to be wrapped.
Start by folding the top and bottom edges of the banana leaves together, then the sides.You may have to jiggle it around a little bit so that the liquidy masa doesn’t ooze out.  That’s another reason for the double layer of banana leaf, though.  Once you’ve got a tight, non-leaky tamale, wrap your tamale in the foil.  Tie your tamales together in pairs, seams facing inward.


Arrange your tamales in your pot, standing up.  Make sure they are fully submerged.


Top your tamales in the pot with a few more layers of banana leaves, then cover and boil for about 3 hours.  Check back periodically to add more water if needed, to keep the tamales submerged.  After 3 hours, remove them from the pot and allow them to cool for at least 20-30 minutes.

Colombian tamales


Once it’s done, and you’ve allowed them to cool, you’ll unwrap and be rewarded with a delicious tamale!  Eat with a side of rice, hot sauce, or anything you’d like!

COLOMBIAN TAMALES (courtesy of Doña Rosa)


For the Marinade
  • 2 tbsp Cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp Peppercorns
  • 6 cloves
  • 6 cloves allspice
  • ½ star anise
 For the Masa
  • 2lbs dried yellow corn
  • water
For the Guiso
  • 1 14oz can peeled whole tomatoes
  • 4 red bell peppers
  • ½ white onion
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 15 cloves of garlic (mashed)
  • ½ bunch of cilantro
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp ground clove
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 or 2 jalapenos (optional)
  • 2 envelopes Goya seasoning (with Azafran)
For the Filling
  • 3 small potatoes, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 cup carrots, sliced diagonally
  • 1 cup peas
  • 2lbs paleta (pork leg), cut into cubes (marinated for 2 to 3 days)
  • 2lbs pork ribs (cut into 2inch chunks) (marinated for 2 to 3 days)
  • Guiso
  • Masa
Additional materials
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cooking string
  • Banana leaves


5 days ahead
Soak the corn in plain water, changing out the water every other day, until corn softens.  You should be able to apply firm pressure with your fingernail to the corn, and it will break apart.  (hint, best to use a glass container to soak the corn, so it does not absorb odor)
4 days ahead
Wash the marinade ingredients in a strainer, then soak in water for 1 day.
3 days ahead
Boil the soaked marinade ingredients in about 1/2 cup of water for 30 minutes.  Set aside and let cool.
Once cool, blend all of the ingredients in a blender, pass through a strainer, and refrigerate in an airtight container.
Meanwhile, you can brine your pork chunks if you wish.
2 days ahead
Take your pork chunks (remove from brine and rinse, if you brined them) and rub them with the marinade.  Place in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Preparation Day
Drain the water from the corn, and rinse off.  Scrub the corn between your hands
Soak the banana leaves in cold water
Roast the red peppers by rubbing them in olive or canola oil, placing them on a baking sheet on the topmost oven rack on broil, turning every few minutes to brown each side.  It’s okay if the skins blacken somewhat.
Remove peppers from oven and place in a paper bag.  If you don’t have a paper bag, loosely wrap in aluminum foil.  Allow them to cool completely.
Place corn in the cup of a food processor until the corn comes just above the top of the blades.  Do not overfill.  Blend in the food processor, adding water 1tbsp at a time, until the mixture is smooth and resembles a very thick cake batter.  Pour into a large mixing bowl, then repeat for the remainder of the corn.
Remove the banana leaves from the water soak and wipe off with a clean cloth.  Wipe the leaves along the green to prevent them from tearing. Set aside on a baking sheet
Make the guiso
  • Saute the onions in about ½ cup of vegetable oil over medium heat until semi translucent
  • Add the green peppers and jalapenos (if using)
  • Add in the mashed garlic, and stir until combined.  Add the chopped scallions and cilantro
  • Add in the pureed tomato and red pepper mixture.  Bring to a simmer.  Add the cumin, pepper, salt, cloves, allspice.  Adjust spices to taste
  • Remove from heat
Assemble your tamales
  •  Place a large, tall pot on the stove and fill about halfway with water.  Turn stove to medium-high
  • Place some of the masa in a medium bowl.  Add about half a ladle of the guiso, plus enough water for the mixture to resemble the consistency of pancake batter.  It should be pourable, but not runny.  Add salt to taste, if needed.
  • Place the marinated pork chunks and rib pieces in separate bowls.  Add about half a ladle full of guiso and masa to each bowl and work it into the meat with your hands
  • In a shallow plate, place a rectangle of aluminum foil, then 2 squares of banana leaf.  Take care that there are no holes or tears in the leaves.  It is also best of the grains are not aligned
  • Place about two spoonfuls of guiso on the banana leaf and spread around.  Add two slices of potato, 2-3 slices of carrot, and a small handful of peas.  Top with about 2 pieces of the pork rib and 2 pieces of the boneless pork chunks.  Pour about half a ladleful of the seasoned masa mix over the meat, then one or two spoonfuls of guiso.
  • Fold the banana leaves over the filling to create a tight package, ensuring no leakage.  Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and seat aside.  Repeat this process to make another foil package, then tie both packages together using the cooking thread.  Take care not to tie them too tight, so that you do not tear the foil.
  • Repeat the process until all of the ingredients have been used.
  • Once the water in the large pot has come to a boil, place the tamale packages in the water.  Stand them up so that the packages tied together are in the water side-by-side, and not one on top of the other.
  • Top the tamales with banana leaves.  Cover and boil for 3 hours, adding additional water as needed to keep the tamales fully submerged
  • Remove from water and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before unwrapping.
Phew!  You got all that?  Yes, they are a lot of work, but the payoff is OH SO GOOD!  So, if you’re feeling brave, give them a try!

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