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South American Cuisines: VENEZUELA

In the third part of this series, Penelope Walsh celebrates Christmas, Venezuelan style

Written by . Published on December 20th 2011.

South American Cuisines: VENEZUELA

EVERY year in December, London’s Bolivar Hall (a cultural embassy, and meeting point for the Venezuelan community) hosts its Christmas Bazaar. Venezuelans flock to the event, coming together for a taste of Christmas as it is celebrated in their country. A key part of what draws them to this event is the food.

Despite the similarities with other South American cuisines, for the Venezuelans, Christmas is entirely different... traditional Christmas dishes are, however, considered to be the most distinct throughout Latin America.

Venezuelan food certainly shares characteristics with that of its neighbours.  There are differences, but they are subtle. The arepa, considered by many to be the Venezuelan national dish, is a case in point. These small, round breads made from corn dough are as dear to any Colombian’s stomach, as to a Venezuelan’s. Wilson, owner of the new La Cabaña restaurant in Brixton Village, which lists Venezuelan and Colombian arepas separately on the menu, takes me into the minutiae. “The main difference,” he says, “is you open Venezuelan arepas and fill them up with lots of combinations, shredded beef, chicken, cheese, ham. Colombians like their arepas plain, with no filling, or only with cheese, and you put the fillings on the top.”

The Arepa And Co Stall In Camden Lock MarketArepa And Co Stall In Camden Lock Market

Augusto, owner of Arepa and Co., a Venezuelan catering service, and an arepa stall in Camden Market, takes me further back. “Arepas are Indian; they exist from a time before the borders were developed. So they don’t belong to anyone really,” he explains. Even so, Wilson and Augusto are on a mission to put arepas on the map, and both talk of making them as beloved and familiar to us as the hamburger.

Despite the similarities with other South American cuisines, for the Venezuelans, Christmas is entirely different. Nowadays, many fashionable South Americans opt for turkey on Christmas day. Venezuela’s traditional Christmas dishes are, however, considered to be the most distinct throughout Latin America.

According to Augusto of Arepa and Co, “The Venezuelan Christmas dinner is complex, time consuming, rich in flavour but ultimately, a rewarding food experience.” In fact, the Venezuelans I met, could not impress upon me enough just how time consuming these dishes are.

The classic Venezuelan Christmas dinner always consists of four components: pernil, ensalada de gallinapan de jamón and hallacas. Pernil is slow roasted pork shoulder. Unlike the British equivalents, on this plate, the roasted meat is not the main attraction, but an accompaniment. Recipes for marinating the pernil differ from family to family, but classically it contains white wine, orange juice and spices, which gives it a distinctly Christmassy flavour.

Ensalada de gallina, literally means hen salad, but is referred to as Russian salad in English. It is eaten cold like a western-style potato salad, and the ingredients and flavour are similar. The salad consists of shredded chicken, potatoes, carrots and peas, dressed with mayonnaise and mustard.

Augusto's Pan De JamonAugusto's Pan De Jamon

Pan de jamon (literally ham bread) resembles the Italian bread stromboli, and is made using a similar technique. There is, in fact, a large Italian community in Venezuela, and it is therefore conceivable (if not conclusive) that the techniques and ingredients used in this dish have developed from the Italian influence. A soft, white and slightly sweet bread dough is made and rolled out into a long rectangular strip. The dough is then covered with smoked ham, bacon, olives and raisins, rolled into a long loaf and baked. The quality of the ham, Augusto tells me, makes a huge difference, so he uses a speciality ham that has a wonderfully intense aroma and flavour.

For a non-Venezuelan, the most exciting and unusual component of the Christmas platter is the hallaca (pronounced ‘aeyaca’), and it is the main event for Venezuelans too. Whilst there are European references in the other Christmas recipes, the hallaca is distinctly South American in technique, ingredients and flavour.

Hallacas are similar to tamales, a dish usually attributed to Mexico, but which is eaten all over Latin America. There are differences in the ingredients, but the key difference is, whereas tamales are eaten all over Latin America, only Venezuelans prepare hallacas, and only at Christmas time.

La Cabana's HallacasLa Cabana's Hallacas

The recipe for hallacas is time consuming; it involves many ingredients, many hours and many hands to produce the finished product. That product is a little steamed parcel of soft, sweet corn dough, stuffed with a generous amount of meat and vegetables and then wrapped in a banana leaf. Wilson (from La Cabaña) took me through the process.

The hallacas are wrapped in banana leaves, so that the dish takes on their flavour. First, to enhance this flavour, the banana leaves are cleaned, oiled and smoked. Next, a dough is made from chicken stock and South American cornflour (a coarse, ground maize, similar to polenta). Two separate stews (known as guiso) are also prepared from pork and beef, cooked with red bell peppers, onions, spring onions and coriander. These ingredients are then left overnight.

Now the hallacas are ready to be assembled. From watching Wilson’s mother Marlene quickly and carefully put the hallacas together, it takes skill and patience. Working with just one helper to tie the neatly wrapped banana leaf parcels with string, Marlene takes on average two hours to assemble 100 hallacas.

Traditionally, families save this task for a Sunday. “It’s a family thing,” Wilson tells me “everybody helps.” In fact, everyone confirms that Venezuelan families turn the task of making hallacas into a party in its own right, with a production line of cooks and adding music and a little Venezuelan rum into the balance.

Making Hallacas At La Cabana 2Making Hallacas

The banana leaves are laid out and oiled with achiote oil (known as anoto in Venezuela, this oil is made from achiote seeds, and acts as a natural colourant and flavouring). Next, Marlene, spreads the corn dough in a circle in the centre of the leaf, wetting her hands a little to make the stiff mixture more malleable. The thick, dry pork and beef stews are then laid on top of the dough, side by side.

The rest of the ingredients are placed on top; strips of chicken, ham, onions, olives, capers, red bell peppers and raisins. The whole parcel is then neatly and tightly packaged up in the banana leaf, and tied up securely with string. The wrapped hallacas are boiled for two to three hours, and left for two days for the flavours to intensify. Individual hallacas can then be heated on demand by boiling or steaming them for five minutes.

Hallacas are thought to have originally been made by slaves to use the leftover meat and vegetables given to them by their colonial masters. Opinions vary on this theory, but whatever the reality of the hallaca’s history, the hint of charity and goodwill in this story, combined with the convivial, communal manner in which it is made today, make it the perfect dish to embody the spirit of Christmas.


Feliz Navidad!



More Information


Arepa and Co
Having worked with high-profile clients, such as celebrity chocolatier Willie Harcourt-Cooze, Arepa and Co’s catering service brings a touch of glamour to Venezuelan classics. Owner Augusto also runs the weekend stall in Camden Market, specialising in arepas (Venezuela’s famous cornbread snack) with a variety of fillings.

Saturday and Sunday at Camden Lock Market, West Yard


La Cabaña

Joining Brixton Village’s vibrant food scene early this year, La Cabaña is a true family run restaurant, with everyone involved. Here, owner and trained chef Wilson offers a broad range of traditional Venezuelan dishes, just like his mother makes; because she shares the kitchen duties with him. Colombian and other South American specialities are also available.

1 Granville Arcade, Brixton Village, Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8PR


Mi Cocina Es Tuya Café Latino

Cook Mary is known for her hallaca recipe. Unusually, this Venezuelan Christmas delicacy is on the menu at this cosy café in Crystal Palace throughout the year. www.micocinaestuya.co.uk


Sabor Venezolano

This popular Covent Garden stall attracts quite a queue. Here, the signature dish is freshly cooked cachapas, Venezuelan style crepes made with sweet corn, generously filled with your preferred combination of beef, chicken, vegetables and cheese.

Thursday at the Real Food Market, Covent Garden



Venezuelan Food and Drinks
Written by Russell Maddicks, author of The Bradt Guide to Venezuela, this blog is a detailed and up-to-date resource for Venezuelan food news in London, and further a field.

Follow @penelopewalsh on Twitter

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