A real Venezuelan icon: “The Hallaca”
Could there be anything more Venezuelan than the arrepa? The answer is Yes !
As I was having a sunny Sunday afternoon barbecue with friends and my tenant, an Uber driver from Venezuela, to celebrate the arrival of Spring, I asked him if Venezuela had some famous dishes with capers.
The answer came fast and swift. “Yes”, he said, “the hallaca”.
As I had not expected a positive answer to my question, I was happily surprised. Another ‘almost’ national dish with capers on my list!
He continued, “Hallacas are, beyond any doubt, the most popular dish that dresses up the Christmas celebrations.
Because Venezuelans, at home and in their new home abroad, when the holidays arrive,
they all long for the hallacas.”
Tracing back its history
Hallacas is the oldest food tradition in Venezuela and it is the most popular Christmas meal
served during the holidays. It is still prepared in a similar fashion to colonial times with some
modern refinements. The hallaca is also considered one of the most representative icons of
Venezuelan multicultural heritage, as its preparation includes European ingredients (such as
raisins, nuts and olives and capers), indigenous ingredients (corn meal colored with annatto seeds),
and African ingredients (smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping).
Although it is a dish that can be tasted at any time of the year, it is essentially associated with the family celebration of Christmas, since at the beginning of December most Venezuelan families meet to prepare the ingredients, cook and put together the finds.
A mixture of cultures
As many things in Venezuela, the hallaca has the influence of three cultures:
- The white
- The Indian or indigenous
- The African
“No hallaca tastes the same as another”.
This mixture of cultures is reflected in its ingredients. Its ingredients, all from different origins, harmoniously complement each other in the hallaca, an expression of the miscegenation and coloring of the Venezuelan people.
The banana leaf, used by both the African Negro and the American Indian, is its protective covering.
Upon unfolding the leaf, the indigenous presence is revealed. The corn dough colored with onoto or annatto seeds is the one that welcomes you with its striking yellow color.
Then, inside the dough, the arrival of the Spaniards to these lands is appreciated with chicken, pork and beef, olives, capers, raisins … all finely chopped, stewed as part of this exquisite delicacy.
They say that back in the years of the revolution of independence, each Christmas eve, the
wealthy families prepared huge banquets, an a selected variety of meats and stews
adorned the Venezuelan tables. The next day the slaves who poked around, would collect
the leftovers and wrapped them in corn dough and then covered them with banana leaves
winding up straight into big pots boiling on wood. From this process has evolved the recipe
that has survived for centuries and until today is still maintained: it’s the recipe of the now so popular hallaca.
More likely is that this dish of Venezuela came from the efforts taken by the Spanish to “improve”
the tamale, including pre-Columbian dishes, expanding the ingredients that made up the filling.
Such efforts represented an adaptation to the palate of the European colonial Spanish America.
Another account of the legends affirms that when they were building the “Road of the Spanish”,
a mountain road that connected the port of La Guaira to Caracas, the Indians who inhabited
these roads, ate some muffins or tamales, made from pure corn, which produced a disease
caused by vitamin deficiency called pellagra, which contaminated the population. Therefore
Caracas families were asked to donate their leftover food to help fill the Indians buns as did
their slaves and servants.
This dish has variations in the different regions of Venezuela, but considered the best are:
The hallaca caraqueña is beyond any doubt the best known nationally and the one with the most laboriousness, thanks to the large number of ingredients used for the stew.
Its peculiarity resides in that in addition to using more conventional ingredients together with chicken, hen, beef and pork, it has a sweeter flavor than the rest of the hallacas. It is widely consumed in the states of Miranda, Aragua, Carabobo and Vargas.
Victor Moreno, Venezuela’s most emblematic chef, shares his recipe. And it has to include the following ingredients:
- 4 ½ liters of chicken or chicken broth
- 10 tablespoons of butter
- 7 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon of onoto seed
- 2 packages of precooked cornmeal`
- 1 kilo of beef pulp
- 1 kilo of pig
- 1 large hen
- ½ kilo of bacon
- ¼ cup of shredded paper
- 3 large onions
- 3 garlic jars
- 3 chives
- 2 green peppers
- 2 heads of garlic
- 2 sweet peppers
- 1 large package of parsley
- 1 bottle of Moscatel wine
- salt to taste
- 150 grams of pickles in vinegar
- 100 grams of capers
- 100 grams of olives
- ¼ kilo peeled almonds
- ½ kilo of raisins
- 1 roll of wick
- 10 packs of smoked banana leaves
- Pour the flour into a large bowl.
- Add the broth with the butter where you have previously fried and placed the onoto seeds.
- Add the butter and flour. Knead into a smooth dough.
- Form 50 balls.
- Boil the hen in prey and conserve the broth.
- Shred the meat.
- Cut the pig into small cubes.
- Grind and mash the seasonings: garlic, garlic porro, onion, chili, chives.
- It gathers everything in a pot with the pig and begins to cook.
- Season with salt to taste and bring to a boil. Add a little chicken broth.
- Add the capers, wine to taste and a little pickle vinegar.
- Stir everything little by little and cook for about 45 minutes. When it is well seasoned, a little dough is dissolved in the chicken broth and added by passing it through a strainer and stirring so that it does not dry out.
- Bring to a boil until set. It is removed from the heat and left to rest until it cools completely.
- Split the leaves and wipe them with a wet cloth and then a dry cloth to dry them.
- Separate the larger ones for bottoms and the smaller ones up for tops.
- Cut the edges if you have them, as well as some in thin strips to use as girdles or reinforcements.
- Spread the dough on the sheets with a knife.
- Place the stew in the center and add the rest of the ingredients: the shredded chicken, the olives, the raisins, the bacon in strips, the raisins, the minced pickles and the peeled almonds.
- Cover, wrap and tie.
- Boil the hallacas in boiling salted water for two hours. When they have been simmering for an hour, turn them over to cook on the other side. Take them out to drain.
“Tell me where you are from and I’ll tell you what hallaca you will eat”
The Andeans like to add boiled eggs into the mix, and so has every single region its own different traditions and ways to give it their personal signature, as well as families.
How to serve them best?
The hallaca tastes better once it has cooled down and settled in the fridge for at least one day. It requires
hours to make them, but they are usually made by the whole family. Its preparation requires
organization and dedication but still it is a celebration by itself. Holiday music (gaitas,
villancicos, and aguinaldos) are heard during its making while Christmas drinks like Ponche
Crema (eggnog) make up the festive atmosphere.
The Origin of the Word
According to the German naturalist, Adolfo Ernst (1832-1899), the word ‘hallaca’ comes from the Guaraní aya = “mixture” and the Spanish suffix -aca that indicates “related to” as in aphrodisiac and machaca. …
From there he deduced that the word hallaca comes from a Guarani word that means package.
The more I know, the more I wonder. How did this small, green pearl conquer the world !