Hallacas: The Perfect Venezuelan Christmas Dish
Christmas is almost here! The tree is up, the garlands hung, the lights are strung… but you’re unsure what to serve this year. If you’re looking for a traditional and South American twist for your dinner fare, the Venezuelan hallacas might fit the bill.
Meaning “to mix” in Guarani language, hallacas is food carefully prepared days in advance before Christmas.
It dates back to the colonial times, when household servants would gather leftovers from the succulent Spanish feasts held at plantations. This resulted in a mixture of beef, pork, chicken, raisins, capers, peppers, onions and olives, all wrapped in cornmeal dough. Then it’s folded within plantain leaves then tied with twine. It is then boiled or steamed afterwards. Here’s a great recipe from Adriana Lopez.
For Venezuelans, hallacas is their most traditional culinary work of art. Isn’t it humbling to think how this dish started as servants’ food to being a holiday staple in Central America?
Hallacas involves intense work in the kitchen since they’re made in large quantities to last throughout the entire holiday season. It’s also meant to feed a dozen to several hundred people. Each family has their own secret recipe; usually handed from generation to generation using their own unique ingredients. In addition, each geographical area has its own special way of making them, a characteristic of each town. The whole family helps in the process. It’s quite a beautiful ritual where each family member plays a specific role.
The hallaca-making party involves the matriarchal family members, with grandmothers and mothers leading the preparation. The most important part of hallaca preparation is that it represents one of the strongest holiday family traditions in Venezuela, comparable perhaps to Thanksgiving in the United States.
Hallacas somehow represent the fusion of a country. Each ingredient has its own roots: the banana leaves used by Africans and Indians of America act as a wonderful wrap or a blanket. They unfold to reveal the corn dough and its stunning yellow color representing the livelihood of the Latin American indigenous people. As we dig into the hallaca, we taste through the historical memory of the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas. As we make our way to the stew, we taste the food brought by the Spanish conquistadors.
This multicultural history is incredibly well laid-out in hallacas. The ingredients complement each other harmoniously, reflecting the expression of many cultures together in a single element: a true reflection of the colorful and diverse people of Venezuela.
Despite Venezuela’s current social and political climate, every household in Venezuela will open a hallaca on December 24th, just a few hours before midnight. Every inhabitant of that land will be eating the same thing at the same time. Social, religious, racial, gender and political differences can be set aside for a moment. Hallacas allow for communion and peace with each other.