Living in “mi bella Venezuela” for 23 years as an ex-pat gave me a unique and exciting view into the holiday season. There is no family event larger or more encompassing than the preparation of the holiday meal, which begins in the early days of December.
From the great-grandparents down to the young children, everyone is given a task, albeit small, but the feeling of “family” and “tradition” is everything in the Venezuelan culture.
The traditional Venezuelan holiday table consists of Hallacas (Tamale-style delights), Pan de Jamon (Ham-Olive Raisin Bread), Ensalada de Gallina (Potato-Hen Salad), and Pernil de Cochino (Pork Roast).
Days before the traditional Hallacas or Venezuelan tamales are made, there is a lot of shopping, sorting and cleaning of banana leaves, and chopping and prep for these culinary treats. The guiso, or meat stew used to fill them, was cooked days ahead as well, giving it time to gather a robust flavor. Sazon and aji dulce (a local, small pepper) made up the flavor line along with onion and garlic. The meats used could include pork, beef, and chicken, and on occasion, there would be a vegetarian version. Big stock pots were used for the guiso and the smells engulfed every corner of the house.
Banana leaves were sorted, and cleaned, as we celebrated with tragos (drinks) made with rum, Ponche Crema (Venezuelan coquito) or all of the above. Let’s not forget the traditional holiday aguinaldo: music, that was a great part of this 3- to 4-day family tradition.
The day the hallacas were assembled, was long and exhausting, but so rewarding. Everyone had a job to perform, from setting up the leaves, to carefully placing the masa (corn meal base) on the leaf, then filling with the guiso, to the final tying of the package with string. The Hallacas were put in the fridge, or frozen, depending when they were going to be sampled. Hallacas are typically served on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), and New Year’s Eve.
The Pan de Jamon was usually purchased at the local panaderia (bakery), and the Ensalada de Gallina was prepared by one of the family members and included carrots, peas, chicken and mayo to bind. The pernil was ordered from the local carniceria (butcher shop) days ahead of the festivities.
The Venezuelan holiday season will always be part of our family tradition, even though we have lived stateside now for over 20 years. Our holiday table today is a mix of Hallacas, turkey and stuffing, but the most present element at our holiday table is the love of family and tradition that is the key treasure of the Venezuelan culture!