Colombian Tamales How-2 Guide

December 29, 2006 in chicken, Colombian Food, cooking, How-2, latino, pork

Christmas in Colombia is QUITE a production. Its not just one or two days like here in the US and it can be exhausting if you are not used to partying constantly for a better part of some 15 days, day and night after day and night. If you think you will be spending Christmas in Colombia next year be sure to condition your liver with a serious regimen of rum training over several months. Otherwise, you will be such a light-weight that you will not remember past December 15th or so.

One of my most enduring memories from Colombian Christmases would have to be eating tamales at midnight on Christmas Eve. Even though I now live way the h*ll north of the beautiful equatorial paradise that is Colombia and far from my mom, I set out to make my own tamales this year (first time for me). I have put together a few pictures of the assembly process to help you with the how-to. Since I was shooting in the kitchen with low crappy lighting and also taking care of three kids and dealing with a delivery man, all at once, my shots are not the best here and not in great focus. I apologize for that ahead of time!

This is best done surrounded by all of your favorite relatives (preferably mamas, abuelitas, and tias who know how to do this and who have all sorts of stories to tell) so that you have help and make it all go by quickly. I had just myself!

Christmas Eve Tamales - The set-up for assembly

(Christmas Eve Tamales – The set-up for assembly)
Pork and chicken are marinated overnight

(Pork and chicken are marinated overnight)
Filling includes masa, eggs, peas, pork, chicken, carrots, and hogao

(Filling includes masa, eggs, peas, pork, chicken, carrots, and hogao”)
Wrap tamal up in banana leaves and tie with string

(Wrap tamal up in banana leaves and tie with string)
Wrap tamal up in foil and steam 3 hours

(Wrap tamal up in foil and steam 3 hours)
Here is the recipe that our family uses to make Colombian tamales. There is quite a bit of preparation time, so you will need to start at least two or three days ahead of the planned serving time. This recipe should make about 20 tamales.

  • 20 chicken thighs, skinned and defatted (save this. Can be rendered to crisps and schmaltz for other recipes).
  • 20 pork ribs about the length of your finger with a good amount of meat on them. You’ll probably have to buy them as a rack and chop them up yourself. (If you don’t want pork ribs, use 20 chicken legs)


  • 3 bunches of green onions, finely chopped
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 heaping tsps of ground cominos
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • Pinch of ground annatto seeds


  • 5 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 bunches of green onions, finely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of ground cominos
  • Pinch of ground annatto seeds
  • 1/2 cup of packed, chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • salt to taste

4 C “La Venezolana” or “ArepaHarina” precocida (extremely fine precooked corn meal – you simply can not use any substitutes here, find this ingredient)


  • 5 large carrots, peeled and 1/4″ sliced
  • 2 cups of frozen green peas
  • 5 large red potatoes, scrubbed, 1/4″ sliced (put in water to prevent discoloration)
  • 8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and 1/4″ sliced

Package of thawed/frozen banana “platano” leaves (latino food store), cut into 12 inch square pieces and rinsed in VERY hot tap water.

Clean string or cord used for tying meat roasts.

Aluminum foil

A very large crab or lobster steamer with a bottom rack and lid. Fill with salted water about 3 ” above the bottom rack.

Pique Sauce:

  • 6 cleaned green onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup of minced cilantro
  • 1 tsp of ground comino
  • 1/8 cup of sugar
  • 1/2 cup of white vinegar
  • salt to taste


Two or three days before:
Put the chicken and ribs in separate containers. (Or if you are substituting more chicken, you can put all the meat in one container). Prepare the marinade from the ingredients listed above, divide and put 1/2 on the chicken and the other 1/2 on the ribs. With your hands, work the marinade into the meats. Cover and refrigerate until the next day.

Saute the listed “hogao” ingredients in the olive oil until wilted, set aside.

Preparation of the “Masa”:
Corn dough or “masa”. Put 4 cups of “La Venezolana” or “ArepaHarina” in a large bowl or container. Slowly add 5 cups of lukewarm (not hot) water or chicken broth. You’ll probably have to use your hands to mix well. Most likely, you will need to add more water to get the “masa” to the consistency of cooked oatmeal or grits. This dough does not have the stiff consistency of “empanada” dough.

Assembly and cooking of the Tamales:

Place about a cup of the dough in the center of the banana leaf. Place one rib and one chicken thigh on top. Place about 3 slices each of the carrots, potatoes and egg on the meat. Spoon about 3 tablespoons of “hogao” on top of the vegetables and egg. Then spoon about a 1/2 cup of “masa” on top of all of this and gently spread as much out as you can. Now, fold the edges of the banana leaf over the filling so as to make a package. Do not let any of the filling show. If the leaf splits, just take another smaller piece of leaf and fold it around the package.

Tie up the package/tamale with the string or cord. Believe me, this tying up of the tamales in banana leaves takes practice!! After you have tied up the tamale/package, tear off a 12″ sheet of aluminum foil and wrap it tightly around the tamale. Continue with the other tamales according to the above directions. Stack the tamales all the way to the top in the steamer pot and turn up the heat to high. If your pot does not hold all of them, just refrigerate the rest until you can steam them later, or, borrow another steamer pot. When you hear the water boiling furiously, turn the heat down to medium. Always make sure that the pot is steaming and that there is enough water in it. Cover tightly and steam for at least 3 hours. After that time, remove the top tamale and open it up to make sure that the meat is thoroughly cooked. It should be falling off the bone.

Serve the tamales on a section of banana leaf. (Warn guests not to eat the leaf! A favorite Colombian story is that a Gringo was served a tamale. When he finished it he said,”Boy, was this delicious!! However, the lettuce was kind of tough!!” (har,har).

Some Colombians like to put “pique” on their tamales.

To make pique sauce:

This sauce/relish is similar to “pico de gallo” except it does not include the minced jalapeno. If you want to use jalapeno, you can, but it’s not legitimate Colombian. This relish is spooned into a bitten-off empanada or onto arepas, into tamales, etc. Yummmm! Its like a taste of sunshine!

Finely mince the green onions and the garlic. Add the other ingredients and let marinate for at least 2 hours. There should be enough liquid to almost reach the top of the relish. You may have to adjust by adding a little more vinegar.

I made enough to freeze (raw) and will see how they cook up out of the freezer at a later date!

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