In Venezuelan cuisine, an hallaca
typically involves a mixture of beef, pork, chicken, capers, raisins, and olives
wrapped in maize (cornmeal dough), bound with string within plantain leaves, and
boiled or steamed afterwards. It is typically served during the Christmas
Left: Hallaca dish.
Hallaca is a Venezuelan and Colombian (East) version of the
Tamal. Popular myth has it that, in colonial times, it was common
practice for plantation owners to donate leftover Christmas food scraps, such as
bits of pork and beef, to their slaves, who would wrap them in cornmeal and
plantain leaves for subsequent preparation and cooking, which could take
anywhere from 2 to 3 hours.
An alternate theory notes the similarity between the hallaca (also known as
"hayaca") and the Spanish
empanada gallega (Galician pastry), emphasizing that
the fillings are almost identical. Hallacas would then be empanadas gallegas
using corn flour rather than wheat flour, and plantain leaf rather than
expensive iron casts not readily available in the new world in colonial times.
However, the most likely origin of the maize body and plantain envelope of the
hallaca is the Mesoamerican tamal. This version appears likely because
tamal-derived dishes, under various names, spread throughout Spain's American
colonies, as far south as Argentina, in the decades following the conquest.
The hallaca is the staple Venezuelan Holliday dinner dish and its preparation is
practically limited to that time of the year. 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), indigenous ingredients (corn meal colored with annatto seeds
and onions), and African ingredients (smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping).
The traditional hallaca is made by extending a plantain leaf,
greasing it with a spoonful of annatto-colored cooking oil and spreading on it a
round portion of corn dough (roughly 30 cm), which is then sprinkled with
Left: Fillings set out previous to hallaca making. Hallacas
are one of the most common traditions during venezuelan christmas.
While no two families make hallacas in quite the same way, the
most common fillings include a mix of stewed (or rare) meats (pork, poultry,
beef, lard, crisp or pork rind), raisins and pitted green olives. Pepper filled
olives are becoming more popular nowadays. People in the Llanos (savannah) add
boiled eggs and pieces of red pepper. Others might add chickpeas, nuts and
Ingredients differ from region to region and from family to family. It is not
uncommon to find hallacas with chickpeas, tomato, bell pepper, pickled
vegetables, and garlic. Potatoes are included in the Andean variation. Also,
some of the traditional ingredients may be substituted by local variants such as
fish and lobster (East Coast) and plantain dough (Maracaibo).
The filled dough is then skillfully wrapped in an oblong fashion and tied with
string in a typical square mesh before its cooking in boiling water. Afterwards,
it is picked from the pail with a fork, unwrapped and served on its own plantain
leaves with chicken salad, pan de jamón (ham filled bread) or
Left: Cooking hallacas in boiling water.
the Andean region, the filling is cooked with the rest of the hallaca, while in
the rest of the country it is usually cooked beforehand.
The ideal hallaca has a silky golden-reddish glow. In taste, it aims to balance
the saltiness of the meats and olives with the sweetness of the raisins and of
the dough itself.
After making a number of hallacas, the remaining portion of ingredients is
occasionally mixed together in order to obtain a uniform dough. The dough
undergoes the same hallaca wrap and cooking preparation, although typically
smaller in size and much fewer in number. The result is the bollo, which may be
offered as a lighter option to the hallaca at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
After cooking, hallacas can be frozen for several weeks with no change in
flavor. It is common for families to eat hallacas as late as May or June of the
Hallaca-making reunites family members at holiday time. It is a job joyfully
done by whole families together, marking the start of the holiday festivities.
However, 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 United States, as it is embraced by all cultures, religions,
and social strata.