The tamal has many different faces across Colombia, with distinct parts of the country incorporating particular starches, proteins, vegetables, and seasonings into their renditions of the leaf-wrapped dish. Chef Alejandra Cubillos González, who was born and raised in Bogotá, grew up eating tamal santafereño, a variety typical of the capital region that usually includes pork, chicken, peas, carrots, and cornmeal, all bound up tightly in wrapped banana leaves. Every year at Christmas and the New Year, her grandmother, who ran a restaurant and cooked all her life, would prepare the dish for the whole family, with relatives helping assemble and wrap each tamal.
After González became a chef herself and began developing recipes for the menu at the new Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort's Bahía Restaurant in Isla Barú, a former peninsula accessible from the port city of Cartagena, she wanted to represent her native country’s knack for cooking foods wrapped in natural fibers. She also wanted to highlight the local cuisine, which was so different from that of the capital, thanks to the coastal climate and Caribbean influences—namely, the bounty of fresh fish.
It was in Cartagena that González first began to cook fish regularly, especially locally abundant varieties such as horse mackerel and various snappers she had rarely encountered before. “Being close to the sea, I can be more connected with local fishermen, learn from them, and discover other types of food,” she says. “They advised me in the best method of cooking for each variety—fried, roasted, or with some sauce.”
To encapsulate some of her new home city’s quintessential foodways in a single dish, González decided that a tamal-inspired parcel might be a great vehicle for allowing a delicate cut of local corvina to shine. Further drawing on the coastal region’s specialties, she dreamed up a tomato-and-coconut-milk-based sauce—somewhat reminiscent of cazuela de mariscos, or seafood stew, one of Cartagena’s representative dishes—to pour over the fish. A common ingredient in Colombia’s coastal regions because of how plentiful it is, coconut “gives us flavor, moisture, and natural fat that lends texture and aroma,” González explains, while also balancing out the acidity of the tomatoes.
She wraps the fish and sauce in plantain leaves to “protect the ingredients we have chosen,” noting that the natural fibers concentrate the flavors within and preserve the integrity of the fillings as the dish steams. The leaves also impart their own subtly herbaceous and mildly bitter fragrance into the fixings. González further ups the aroma by heating the leaves over hot coals prior to wrapping, which infuses them with smoky flavor and also improves their pliability.
“Wrapping dishes in banana leaves was a tradition of our ancestors,” she explains. (“The whole reason for wrapping food, of course, originates in the need to transport it,” according to Mariana Velasquez, author of the cookbook Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes and Rituals from the Soul of Colombia. “In these little packets, you have a full meal.”) Traditional tamal recipes generally include starches like rice, and meats like chicken or pork, but González believed in the versatility of the cooking method. “To bring it into the present, we decided to apply this wrapping technique to the fish.”
In the kitchen at Bahía Restaurant, González opens up the leaves slightly before serving, so that the fillings peek out and aromatic steam billows from the unwrapped foliage; diners can dig in right away—no unpacking required. Cartagena’s penchant for coconut appears again in a bowl of fragrant coconut rice, served alongside the leaf-cradled tamal. And leaves aren’t the only part of the banana on the table—everyone also gets a helping of plantain chips to nibble on as they look out over Barú’s white-sand shoreline and azure waters. In many ways, this coastal-inspired meal captures the beach surroundings perfectly.
Though González’s tamal may differ from traditional recipes, she considers her interpretation both a celebration of Colombia's tradition of expertly wrapping foods, and also a representation of Cartagena's culinary specialties. “Through this dish, we pay homage to our traditions and to our ingredients,” she says. “The person who tastes this fish can take a trip through their palate.”