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), indigenous ingredients (corn meal colored with annatto seeds),
and African ingredients (smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping). Its name is pronounced
"ah-ya-ka". Although there are many different stories about its origins, the most popular one
states that it was created by the slaves during the colony times. During those days the slaves
used to put the leftovers of their master's Christmas festivities in a bit of cornmeal dough, then
they would wrap them with banana leaves and boil them to mix the flavors.
As many things in Venezuela, the hallaca has the influence of three cultures the white, the
indian, and the african. The original hallaca is made with meat (pork, poultry and beef); for
instance the andeans like to add boiled eggs into the mix, and every single region has its
own different traditions and ways to give it their personal signature, as well as families.
This is also the reason why they say: "No hallaca tastes the same as another". 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 also Christmas drinks like Ponche
Crema (eggnog) make up the festive atmosphere.
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 the 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; is the recipe of our popular
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.
Francisco Herrera Luque, considered the creator of the modern Venezuelan historical literature,
whose works have been widely disseminated within and outside the borders of the country,
introduces in his book The Fabled Story, a funny theory about the origins of the hallaca.
In the story, the author argues that there is an old legend that points to Caracas Don Sancho
de Alquiza, also called Sanchorquiz, as the inventor of the Venezuelan dish. According to the
story presented by Herrera Luque, the hallaca, before having its origin in abundance, was born
of sadness and hunger.
This character, says the Venezuelan novelist, arrived in the country in 1606 and was governor
for 5 years. During his tenure, the old road of the Navy, which cuts through the "Cerro El Ávila"
to the nearby port of La Guaira, was tiled, and as expected, the hard work of extracting the
stone from the mountains and put it on the road was assigned to the Indians who survived
Lozada. However, during the process of improvement of the road, the Indians who worked there
started, dying en masse, "died like flies," says the author. This issue captured the attention of
the governor Alquiza Sancho, who worried intends to investigate the reason for such high
mortality numbers. Upon arrival, the governor was surprised to observe the state of malnutrition
in which these men were, ensuring that it was impossible that being in such conditions they
could had been successfully resisted the attacks of conquistador Lozada. The reason for this
state was how these men were fed, under the intense and constant work they received daily.
It was a corn paste, without salt, wrapped in banana leaves so that it could be heated without
being spilled. Observing this, the governor decided that henceforth would collect half of leftovers
of all households, allocating the other half for the pigs. However, the citizens of that time valued
more a fat pig than a healthy Indian, so the animals had the best part. This happened just weeks
before Christmas right when an epidemic dysentery was unleashed, which killed more poor
Indians than the bad nutrition they had before applying the bright idea of Sanchorquiz governor.
Don Sancho, observing the situation that had occurred, met with the Bishop, who surprised
ensures that such actions could not go unpunished, he imposed penance, such consisted that
during the whole month of December people shall eat "mazacote" leftovers corn hash, wrapped
in the miserable banana leaf that had concealed the disgrace .
And Caracas met, however, they say that who makes the law also makes the trap. Century after
century, people paid their fault, but the innocent bishop did not specify the source or quality of the
mince, which at first was crap, but it was not so for the penitents, who made their well-minced
ham, good legs of chicken, olives, bacon and even leftovers wine they found there.
Hallaca descendant of tamale?
"We accept without further questioning that "The Hallaca", our hearty national dish, derived from
the Mexican tamale, finding in it even clear phonetic relationships or Aztec roots. Perhaps right
are the ones who say such. But when I think of our robust hallaca, so filled with delicacies and
thrived compared with tamale, I think that to derive one from another is like saying that the Llama
of the Bolivian highlands is the ancestor of the Camel. "
Francisco Herrera Luque.