• A tamale is an ancient Mesoamerican dish with a history that dates back to 7000 BC. (Neha Kale)Source: Neha Kale
At Stanmore café Mas Tinto, Camila Prieto and Diego Diaz recreate a much-loved Colombian dish that evokes ancient traditions and family ties.
By
Neha Kale

20 Nov 2020 - 8:53 AM  UPDATED 20 Nov 2020 - 8:53 AM

For Camila Prieto, few dishes symbolise the union of food and family quite as powerfully as the tamale. Prieto, the co-owner of Más Tinto, a neighbourhood café in Stanmore that specialises in classic dishes from Latin America, grew up in Villavicencio, a city near the Los Llanos grasslands, three hours from Bogota. The much-loved Colombian comfort food was a regular highlight of her week.

"We had tamales every weekend – we often didn't cook them at home but would visit a very traditional restaurant in my home city and have them after church," Prieto tells SBS. "Tamales [are about] family time. You eat them [for breakfast] with your family or your very close friends."

The tamale, an ancient Mesoamerican dish with a history that dates back to 7000 BC owes its name to the words for wrapped food in Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs that's still alive in parts of Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the culture is most familiar with Mexican versions of the tamale, which often feature pork or chicken cooked with red chillies, encased in a maize dough called masa. 

"Tamales are about family time. You eat them for breakfast with your family or your very close friends."

"The tamale is a very controversial dish," laughs Prieto. "There are so many versions of the tamale that depend on the region and country. Even inside Colombia, you get many different types – in Bogota, it is more traditional with different fillings. And then in the northern region of Colombia, you eat it with rice."

In Colombia, the tamale that Prieto yearns for and recreates at Más Tinto - which she founded in 2017 with her partner, Diego Dias, with whom she moved to Australia six years ago – is topped with potatoes, peas and carrots.  The hearty, soul-affirming dish is served with arepas and wrapped in banana leaves.

In her hometown, the dish is often filled with chicharron or pork belly, but Prieto prefers leaner cuts such as pork fillet. Making tamales, she says, is labour-intensive. "We don't often make it at home because it doesn't really work for two people," she says.

Instead, it's one of the highlights of the menu at Más Tinto, along with a chicken and potato stew known as ajiaco and caserito, a breakfast dish that revolves around shredded beef, chorizo and sweet plantains. 

Prieto, who adds that Más Tinto is opening a second branch in Darlinghurst, says that the couple moved to Australia for better opportunities.

"We wanted to learn English and we fell in love with Australia," she says. "So, we wanted to offer Australian food mixed with Colombian and Latin food. Some people just like eggs on toast, whatever is in the coffee shop."

But members of Sydney's Latin American diaspora cross town for the café's tamale, sometimes known as the tamal, as well as its empanadas, churros with dulce de leche and pan de bono or Colombian cheese bread.

"We have a mix of Colombian customers and other customers," Prieto explains. "I'm so happy because Colombian food is becoming popular and people are opening new Colombian cafes.

"So many Australians have spent time in Colombia and South America, and have had good experiences. On the weekend, we have a mix of everybody because people travel from far away to eat the sort of things that remind them of home."

Prieto says that the couple visit family in Colombia every two years. Although, the pandemic has thwarted their travel plans and forced many of their customers to leave the country. In March this year, Más Tinto donated food hampers and free meals to members of their community – including international students who'd been employed in hospitality and whose place in Australia had been rendered precarious overnight.

"We had a difficult time in the beginning, but we knew it could be worse than it was for us," she says. "Our friends and our suppliers [came together] and our customers donated money, donated goods. It was kind of anonymous but so many people wanted to help. It was great."


Colombian tamale 

Serves: 15 tamales 

Ingredients

Marinade

  • 1 bunch Shallots
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 1 medium brown onion
  • 3 tsp all-purpose seasoning
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 cups water
  • Salsa (Seasoning)
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 bunch shallots
  • 1 brown onion
  • 1 tsp garlic paste
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp all purpose seasoning
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp pepper
  • 4 tomatoes

Filling

  • 1 kg pork meat
  • 1 kg chicken thigh
  • 5 potatoes
  • 3 carrots

Dough

  • 10 cups water
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose seasoning (Triguisar)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 500 g white corn meal (PAN)
  • 1 cup peas

Wrapping

  • Banana leaves
  • Foil paper

1. Blend the marinade ingredients and leave the chicken and pork into the mix the overnight.
2. Peel and slice the potatoes and carrots and place them in bowl with water
3. For the salsa put all the ingredients in a pan. First the onion and shallots with butter, then the tomatoes and the seasoning stir it until it gets a thick paste.
4. To make the dough place the water with all the other ingredients except for the corn meal into a deep pot. Heat the water in the stove but do not let it boil. Add the corn meal slowly to the water and stir it until it gets smooth and thick. Once it gets consistency add the peas and turn the stove off. If the dough gets too thick you can add one more cup of water.
5. Place the banana leaves on the bench and spread ½ cup of dough then add 2-3 slices of carrots and potatoes and add 1 tbsp of salsa on top of it. Place one piece of chicken and one piece of pork over the other ingredients. Finally add one tbsp of dough and they are ready to wrap.
6. Fold the leave by putting the ends together and once it has the right shape, fold it into the foil nice and tight. Repeat this process with every single tamale.
7. Finally place the tamales in a big pot (tamalera) with a little bit of water at the bottom and a rack so the water does not get in contact with the tamale (they get cooked only with steam). Leave it for around 2 hours checking every 30 minutes the level of the water and add more if it is necessary.
8. Once the tamales are ready take them out of the pot and let them cool for a few minutes before serving.

The corn meal (PAN) is normally found in any Latin market/shop.

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