The tamal has many alternative faces throughout Colombia, with distinct components of the nation incorporating specific starches, proteins, greens, and seasonings into their renditions of the leaf-wrapped dish. Chef Alejandra Cubillos González, who was born and raised in Bogotá, grew up consuming tamal santafereño, a range typical of the capital area that often contains pork, rooster, peas, carrots, and cornmeal, all certain up tightly in wrapped banana leaves. Yearly at Christmas and the New Yr, her grandmother, who ran a restaurant and cooked all her life, would put together the dish for the entire household, with relations serving to assemble and wrap every tamal.

After González turned a chef herself and started creating recipes for the menu at Bahía Restaurant in Isla Barú, a former peninsula accessible from the port metropolis of Cartagena, she needed to characterize her native nation’s knack for cooking meals wrapped in pure fibers. She additionally needed to spotlight the native delicacies, which was so totally different from that of the capital, due to the coastal local weather and Caribbean influences—specifically, the bounty of contemporary fish.

cook searing sea bass fillets

Certainly one of González’s cooks at Bahía Restaurant sears a fillet earlier than wrapping and steaming it. Pictures by Megan Zhang

It was in Cartagena that González first started to cook dinner fish repeatedly, particularly regionally ample varieties equivalent to horse mackerel and varied snappers that she had not often encountered earlier than. “Being near the ocean, I may be extra linked with native fishermen, be taught from them, and uncover different varieties of meals,” she says. “They suggested me in the perfect methodology of cooking for every selection—fried, roasted, or with some sauce.”

To encapsulate a few of her new residence metropolis’s quintessential foodways in a single dish, González determined {that a} tamal-inspired parcel is likely to be a fantastic automobile for permitting a fragile lower of native corvina to shine. Additional drawing on the coastal area’s specialties, she dreamed up a tomato-and-coconut-milk-based sauce—considerably paying homage to cazuela de mariscos, or seafood stew, considered one of Cartagena’s consultant dishes—to pour over the fish. A standard ingredient in Colombia’s coastal areas due to how plentiful it’s, coconut “offers us taste, moisture, and pure fats that lends texture and aroma,” González explains, whereas additionally balancing out the acidity of the tomatoes.

banana leaves being heated over hot coals

Heating the banana leaves over scorching coals infuses them with a smoky aroma. Pictures by Megan Zhang

She wraps the fish and sauce in plantain leaves to “defend the substances we now have chosen,” noting that the pure fibers focus the flavors inside and protect the integrity of the fillings because the dish steams. The leaves additionally impart their very own subtly herbaceous and mildly bitter perfume into the fixings. González additional ups the aroma by heating the leaves over scorching coals previous to wrapping, which infuses them with smoky taste and in addition improves their pliability.

“Wrapping dishes in banana leaves was a convention of our ancestors,” she explains. (“The entire cause for wrapping meals, after all, originates in the necessity to transport it,” in accordance with Mariana Velasquez, writer of the cookbook Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes and Rituals from the Soul of Colombia. “In these little packets, you could have a full meal.”) Conventional tamal recipes usually embody starches like rice, and meats like rooster or pork, however González believed within the versatility of the cooking methodology. “To carry it into the current, we determined to use this wrapping approach to the fish.” 

Within the kitchen at Bahía Restaurant, González opens up the leaves barely earlier than serving, in order that the fillings peek out and fragrant steam billows from the unwrapped foliage; diners can dig in instantly—no unpacking required. Cartagena’s penchant for coconut seems once more in a bowl of aromatic coconut rice, served alongside the leaf-craddled tamal. And leaves aren’t the one a part of the banana on the desk—each get together additionally will get a serving to of plantain chips to nibble on as they give the impression of being out over Barú’s white-sand shoreline. In some ways, this coastal-inspired meal sums up the environment completely.

Although González’s tamal might differ from conventional recipes, she considers her interpretation each a celebration of Colombia’s custom of expertly wrapping meals, and in addition a illustration of Cartagena’s culinary specialties. “Via this dish, we pay homage to our traditions and to our substances,” she says. “The one that tastes this fish can make a journey by means of their palate.” 


Fish Tamales with Hogao del Pacífico

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