Hallacas – A Christmas Tradition
What is an “Hallaca” anyway? Hallacas are a Venezuelan tradition that dates back to the time of colonization. With an indigenous name and a number of ingredients that are a crossbreeding from our Venezuelan aborigines and the European settlers, Hallacas are the perfect symbolization of the mix of our culture. But Hallacas are so much more than that to any Venezuelan. That’s why I want to write about it. It is a tradition that brings family and friends together this time of year. That’s right, we only make them during Christmas time and we wait all year long for that first bite that just brings us back to childhood memories, and flavors that remind us of the loved ones that are long gone but that will forever live in this tradition. I am not going to share a recipe for two simple reasons: 1) If you are Venezuelan, you have been making Hallacas since you can remember and you probably have your family’s recipe in your head as there is no family that ever writes a recipe down. 2) If you are not Venezuelan I doubt that you will ever want to make these on your own, your best bet is to make friends with Venezuelans and ask them to invite you over next Christmas 🙂 Hallacas start with a stew-like base, a mixture of chicken, beef and pork, or a combination of each family’s preference. Slow cooked with onions, peppers, garlic, spices, raisins, olives & capers. Those are the staple ingredients but it’s really hard to say for sure what’s all in it because every region of the country makes them differently and every family has their own secret recipe that in most cases only lives in the head of the master of the family, meaning grandma. There is also a saying that the best Hallacas are the ones made by your mom. In my case, I combine the best I know from my family, which was passed down from my grandmother; and the secrets I learned from a family friend that makes the best Hallacas I’ve ever had (sorry mom! :)) The next step is to make a dough with corn flour, there are few secrets to making this dough and I must confess I am not the best at making this part of the process. Using homemade chicken broth is key for the flavor of the dough which is then extended on cleaned, smoked plantain leaves. After a good amount of the filling is placed in the center it is wrapped up in the leaves and tied with kitchen twine . The yellowish colors on both the stew and the dough comes from annatto. And because an image speaks louder than words… Looks easy? Well, let me tell you that the art of making Hallacas is an all-day labor. My husband learned early in our relationship that there is no way out, so he soon had to learn all the secrets and shortcuts and every year since I moved to the States he has been on this duty with me. He is in charge of cooking them in boiling water for few hours. Kids help too of course, I can only hope that they cherish and carry on this tradition.
The reason that family and friends get together to make this delicious and complicated dish for Christmas is because of the labor involved. Every member of the helping team has a “job”. That’s right, all the duties are sorted out: Cleaning the leaves, making the dough, preparing the stew, assembling Hallacas, tying with kitchen twine, boiling them and finally everyone’s job to enjoy a great meal after all the hard work. This year I had a great group of friends helping, I enjoyed their company so much. Everyone did a great job and we probably finished in record time, which makes me think we are all becoming pros 🙂 There are other traditional recipes that accompany Hallacas on Christmas and New Year’s meal. Our traditional “Pan de Jamon” (ham bread), roasted pork and chicken salad are all served alongside Hallacas during the holidays. If you live in Madison – Wisconsin and you want to have a taste of all of this, you now have the opportunity to visit La Taguara, the only Venezuelan restaurant in town. They serve this Christmas meal the whole month of December and it is absolutely delicious! It doesn’t matter what part of the world we live in, for us Venezuelans there is no Christmas without Hallacas; and to prove it I leave you this video made by montefuscol with a recollection of pictures all over the world. Our Hallacas are on minute 1:11 – Merry Christmas and Enjoy!