One of my favorite traditional Colombian dishes is the tamale. Whenever I get the chance to eat one I leap at the opportunity. This past Christmas, during my visit to Colombia I overindulged. I would eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and on one occasion – believe it or not – as a snack or as Colombians call it “las onces” which is similar to tea time if you are British.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to taste all of the various types since every region has its own recipe. Most of the Colombian tamales are filled with yellow corn or rice, however, people in the pacific region fill them with green plantain dough and coconut milk – I have never tried these but I’m sure they are to-die-for!
Did you know that the most popular Colombian tamale is from the region of Tolima? There is culinary harmony in their flavor, texture, smell and presentation. A traditional Tolimense tamale should consist of pork bacon made from pork belly, pork ribs, beef, creole chicken, chickpeas, carrots, rice, potatoes, and hard boiled eggs, and if that’s not enough it should be served with a hot chocolate and an arepa. So this past Sunday I decided to treat myself to one. I was fortunate enough to have one in the fridge since the day before my wife had made a trip to the only Colombian bakery in Toronto that sells them.
Colombian Bakery in Toronto, Canada
I sat down on my balcony with my tamale, a hot chocolate, and cheese bread – I know, no arepa. As I started to savor this Colombian delicacy I suddenly realized that I was ignorant to the history of their place of origin: the department of Tolima. So, shortly after devouring such a gastronomical bomb, I fought against the urge to go back to bed and decided to put my inquiring mind to work and what I learned is that behind this Colombian dish lies a dramatic story about courage, sacrifice, and devotion.
The department of Tolima was created by the constitution of 1886 and ratified by the law in 1910. It’s located in the Andean region of Colombia and is home to approximately 1,400,00 inhabitants. Its capital, Ibagué, is renowned for its music and is known as the “musical capital” of Colombia. Its name pays homage to a native priestess named Yulima who belonged to an indigenous tribe called the Pijaos.
The Pijaos were Amerindians who previously inhabited the Cordillera Central of the Andes between Mount Huila (the highest snow-capped active volcano of the Cordillera Central of the Andes Mountain), Quindio and Tolima, the upper Magdalena and the Cauca Valley in modern Colombia.
Their language was closely related to that of the western Cundinamarca Panches. In fact, it was so similar that historian Fray Pedro Simón believed the Panches and Pijaos actually spoke the same language. It’s known that they were enemies of the Chibcha and the Paez with whom they eventually joined forces to fight the Spaniard conquerors. The Spaniards were not only after more slaves but were also looking to exploit the land which up to this day is rich in precious minerals. To protect themselves and fight back the Pijaoes, Paez and Chibcha would ambush the Spaniards and immediately hide in the lush jungle. As time went on their strategy became more efficient and they eventually prepared an uprising using flaming arrows. This is when the Spaniards decided to retaliate and delivered a significant blow by capturing Yulima, a virtuous priestess who devoted herself to protecting the mineral wealth of Tolima and who also ran a religious Pijao shrine in the vicinity of the volcanic plug Machín. It was there where she was assaulted and taken prisoner. She was led in chains to Ibagué’s main square where she was burned alive and while agonizing she received blessings from an inquisitor priest absolving her from her sins of witchcraft and imploring for her soul to quickly ascend to heaven. (as mentioned by Fray Pedro Simón).
The department of Tolima is widely known for its fascinating scenery, satiny emeralds, captivating music, and exceptional gastronomy, but behind its treasures there are many stories of valor, perseverance and devotion. The next time I sit down to enjoy a Tolimense tamale I will be conscious that the Pijaos were not only devoted to their exquisite cuisine but also to protecting their land, minerals, and people in an honorable struggle to preserve their freedom.