Food for Thought: Hallacas tell a story of Venezuela

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Hallacas wrapped in banana leaves and strings on a plate.

By: Michelle Young, Editor-in-Chief

Christmas smells like banana leaves. That’s because it’s a key ingredient in my family’s holiday meals, frequently consisting of pan de jamón, panettone, and hallacas. Every hallaca is different depending on the family who makes it. They primarily consist of some form of protein (mine are made of chicken, beef, and pork) stuffed into harina pan and wrapped into banana leaves. 

The guiso (filling) can vary depending on the spices used and whether you add olives, peppers, capers, or raisins. There are many ways to mix and match, and it is hardly a uniform recipe. While the origins of the name are unclear, some speculate it comes “from the union of the words ‘allá’ and ‘acá,’ which means ‘here’ and ‘there.’” Others say it came from the “Guarani language, stemming from the verb ‘ayua’ or ‘ayuar,’ meaning ‘to mix or blend.’” It’s also been reported that hallaca “means ‘package’ in the Indigenous Tupi-Guarani languages.” While it remains debated, each theory successfully captures a core aspect of the hallaca. 

There are a few different ideas around how hallacas came to be, but the most common I’ve heard is that those enslaved by the Spanish took food leftovers to create the unique mixture of hallacas. Conversely, today hallacas would be very difficult to find in Venezuela due to food shortages. It is hard to create even basic meals. The amount of ingredients — typically over 20 — required to make the guiso make it a luxury to enjoy an hallaca for Christmas. Even as a kid, I remember my mom going to a variety of different stores to collect the ingredients: hopping between T&T, Superstore, and Fruiticana. When my grandmother came to Canada to visit in 2019, she cried after seeing grocery stores stocked with food. She hadn’t had hallacas in many years. 

Of course, with my grandmother visiting, my mom and aunt set out to make hallacas with her. My grandmother sat at the kitchen table, meticulously cleaning the banana leaves, as my mom worked on the guiso. Typically, making hallacas requires all your aunts and uncles due to its long and strenuous process — in my experience, it takes around two days to make them, but this can also depend on how you prepare them and how many people you have in your family. You start by hand washing the banana leaves, trimming them, letting them dry, creating the guiso and letting it cook for a number of hours, slice a trillion vegetables, prepare the masa, put it all together, and neatly tie it up like a little present. 

Tying the hallacas themselves is a skill in itself — getting the tie pattern correctly and making sure it’s not too loose or too tight is an artform. This is so important, it birthed the phrase, “una hallaca mal amarrada” (a poorly-tied hallaca) to mean something that looks ugly or out-of-place. 

My grandmother watched carefully to see how the family recipe was recreated. When I came home that evening, I found my mom and grandmother fuming over the hallacas. My mom had a giant pot of guiso ready, and my grandmother had been demanding she pick out the olives one-by-one to slice them, as she hadn’t done so before putting them in the pot. As difficult as hallacas are, each family has details that make the recipe their own. 

Once they’re ready, you can freeze them for the rest of December and take them out to boil when you want to eat one. There’s nothing like a hot steaming hallaca plopped onto your plate during the holidays. You untie the strings, unwrap the banana leaves, and you will find a plump masa with all the spices, veggies, and meat you could imagine. 

Hallacas use “elements from the three major groups that were brought together as a result of Spanish colonization and the slave trade.” This included corn flour from the Americas, “a baroque stew which includes olives, capers, almonds and raisins from Spain, and plantain leaves” that came from Europeans who had previously colonized Africa. 

Hallacas, like many Venezuelans, have migrated to neighbouring countries, the US, and Canada. They serve as a cultural connection, and making hallacas is a cultural experience in itself. Now found in the homes of Venezuelan diaspora, the iconic food reflects the diversity of Venezuelans and their history showcases the changing nature of the Venezuelan economy and identity.