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Hallaca is a Venezuelan dish made of cornmeal dough or maize, with a mixture of different types of meat as filling. It is then wrapped in plantain or banana leaves in individual pieces. This dish is very similar to the “tamales” and “empanada,” both of which are Hispanic dishes that also have fillings inside pieces of dough. Hallaca can be alternatively spelled “hayaca” and is also considered a part of Mexican cuisine.
There are many explanations as to how the hallaca came to be. One story says that the hallaca originated as a slave’s food during Venezuela’s colonial times. During Christmas celebrations, the landlords and plantation owners would give to their slaves and workers leftover foods from their holiday meals. In turn, the slaves would resourcefully mix the leftovers and make them as a filling inside cornmeal dough, ultimately creating the hayaca.
Other sources even mentioned how the foreign slaves would repeatedly say “alla” and “aca,” translated as “there” and “here,” while pointing to their master’s plate and to their own corn cakes, suggesting that the master give them some food to make their corn cakes more appetizing. The combination of the two words became the name of the dish: hallaca. Other accounts say that the hayaca indeed originated from the tamales, a dish whose roots go as far back as the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
Preparing and cooking hallacas usually take a long time, so they are typically made in huge batches that can last for several days of holiday feasts. The cornmeal dough is usually prepared by initially heating annatto seeds in some olive oil until the oil turns red. In a separate pan, spices such as pepper, coriander seeds, garlic and onions are fried and boiled to make a vegetable stock. The annatto seeds and vegetable stock are then combined and strained to avoid clumpy dough. The cornmeal is then added and stirred in gradually until the dough is soft but firm enough to retain its shape.
The meat used for the filling usually includes beef, chicken, and pork, all of which are stewed together along with other ingredients like olives, capers, and raisins. Bell peppers, garbanzos, and nuts can also be added to create a chunky consistency. The dough is then spread onto pieces of banana or plantain leaves, and a spoonful of meat filling is placed at the center. The finished hallaca is then rolled and wrapped inside the leaf, secured by tying a string around it. The hallacas are either boiled or steamed before being eaten and served.