Colombia has a long tradition of wrapping starches, meats, and vegetables in plantain or banana leaves before cooking. This technique likely originated in the convenience of portability, though steaming the enclosed parcels also concentrates their fillings’ flavors and juices within as the thick leaves lend the tamales a deeply herbaceous aroma.
Alejandra Cubillos González, head chef at the new Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort's Bahía Restaurant in Isla Barú (a former peninsula known for its white-sand shoreline, accessible from the port city of Cartagena), wanted to develop a recipe that celebrated this culinary technique while also highlighting the foodways of the Caribbean coast. González’s creation differs from more traditional starchy rice-, plantain-, or corn-based tamales in that it contains primarily fresh fish seasoned with hogao del pacífico, a Colombian-style tomato-based sofrito. However, she considers her iteration both a celebration of her country’s food-wrapping tradition and also an homage to the culinary specialties of Cartagena.
González serves this dish with a rich and aromatic coastal Colombian-style coconut rice, which is made with warm coconut milk, butter, and sugar. Steamed white rice is a serviceable substitute.
For the hogao sauce:
- 2 medium plum tomatoes
- ½ cups vegetable oil or other neutral oil, divided
- 2 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp. finely chopped basil leaves
- 2 tbsp. finely chopped cilantro
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- ¾ cups coconut milk
For the tamales:
- 2 lb. skinless sea bass fillets, cut into four 8-oz. portions
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Fresh or thawed, frozen banana leaves, cut into four 12- by 10-in. rectangles