Tamal in Bogota
The waiter takes our order and, before descending the stairs, extends all five fingers of his right hand: “Cinco minuticos”—five short minutes.
I explain to Sabeth, my German girlfriend, that La Puerta Falsa, next to Bogota’s Cathedral, is next to a side door that once was walled up. People would say “let’s meet at the aguapanalería at the false door.” That’s how the restaurant got its name.
Sabeth smiles, nods and we fall into silence. It’s 7 a.m., I’m hungover, and all I can think of is food.
The waiter comes up carrying two metal trays. Sabeth’s smile vanishes and I get crankier as he passes and serves another table. A guy in a black suit devours his huevos con todo—scrambled eggs with everything: white cheese, slices of sausages, ham, corn. It should be me eating those.
I try to distract myself by telling Sabeth more history. That La Puerta Falsa opened in 1816, and has been run by the same family for seven or eight generations. It’s only half a block away from Bolivar Square, the center of Colombian power. The restaurant’s owners and patrons have witnessed some of the most distressing moments in our country’s recent history: the riots of El Bogotazo in 1948, and in 1986, the guerrilla group M-19’s attack on the Supreme Court building.
Back to silence.
Our gazes cross from time to time as we look around, absorbing the details of the place. The second floor, where we’re sitting, has four wooden tables. Thanks to a mirror that covers the entire wall on the opposite side of the room, we get a fair view of the ground level. There is a tiny kitchen shared by four cooks and a cashier area behind an open fridge with a variety of juices, cheeses, arequipe figs, and other sweet treats.
Without enthusiasm, I answer Sabeth’s questions. Almojabanas are cheesy, UFO-shaped baked corn pastries. They seem plain but they are very filling. A tamal is made of corn dough mixed with rice and stuffed with vegetables, pork, and chicken. Then this pie is wrapped in bijao leaves and cooked. The hot chocolate comes with a slice of white cheese. People drown it in the mug and let it melt before drinking the cocoa.
It’s hot and the remains of Glenlivet in my blood react accordingly. I feel naïve for trusting in cinco minuticos. Three years living outside Colombia, and I’ve forgotten the basics. That cannot be good for my colombianidad. In my mind, I walk down the stairs and demand my breakfast. My shirt is stuck to my back. I feel like fainting.
When the tamal is finally set down in front of me and its seductive smell hits my nose, I am saved. With the first bite, the evil waiter and his accomplices in the kitchen are forgiven. They are angels.
Photo by: Elisabeth Brenker