Hallacas: Tempest in Tradition
New Year’s Eve Eve. My mom had been begging my grandma Abi for years to make hallacas again. What are hallacas or hayacas, you might ask? It is a dish made of corn flour dough filled with meat, in this case chicken, wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled to reveal a compact yet flavorful gift. While the hallacas aren’t Puerto Rican, they may as well be. All the ingredients used to make them are common in Puerto Rican cuisine. They are Venezuelan “pasteles”, if you will, but with corn dough instead of one made of root vegetables and plantains.
My grandma had been making this dish for as long as I can remember for Christmas Eve or around the holiday season. She is the Puerto Rican hallaca queen and got the tradition from my great-grandma, our matriarch. We wonder who taught her. Maybe she swapped recipes with a Venezuelan neighbor? Anyway, after about a five year break, here we were again at the kitchen table assembly line. I may have helped Abi make them when I was little, but that was then and this is now. In front of me was a large bowl of the corn dough, another bowl full of chicken stewed with home made sofrito 0cooking base0, chickpeas, and olives, a stack of plantain leaves my dad brought from our patio and parchment paper. I went over the steps in my head: Place a plantain leaf on top of a white paper. Add some corn dough, smash it a bit, add the chicken mix, fold it like a rectangular precious gift, and string two together for boiling. I watched my grandma do it. Even without a recipe, she quickly got to work. A bit of this, more of that...and there it was a perfectly sized, perfectly filled hallaca. I felt confident. Simple enough, right? Heh. Wrong!
I grabbed parchment paper, layered a plantain leaf over it, and plopped on some corn mix. “That is too much”, my grandma said. I removed some then added the chicken. Folding the paper with everything inside so the corn mix borders matched was trickier than it looked. My grandma showed me how to wrap it, and there went the first one! “I want that one, it’s so plump!”, mom said. I felt confident! I could do this!! I grabbed another batch of the ingredients for round two. I took note of Abi's comments, and reduced the quantity of both the mixes. I wrapped it and stared at my creation. Hum, how come this time my hallaca looks like I wrapped a ruler. My mom took one look at it, “Ooops!”. She was in charge of tying the two hallacas together. My hallaca style was creating a confusing mismatch! My grandma looked at the creature, and laughed, maybe at first a bit at me but pretty quickly with me.
I kept going, trying to mimic my grandma’s ways wondering how she made it look effortless. Every time I added another hallaca to the pile, my grandma laughed even more. I tried!! I promise! With practice, I got better. Finally, one did not turn out like a “flauta”, as my mom called it. Hey, at least she didn’t say spaghetti…? Right? I need to interject here-I love cooking but, people, these are hard. I assume the process for making pasteles and yes, tamales, is similar. The hallaca adventure gave me a deep respect for all who make these tasty treasures with ease. Trust me, it is harder than it looks. One day, I will make the best hallaca ever. You’ll see.
What I’m trying to get at here is: keeping traditions alive is fun but at the same time it is not always easy! It takes time and effort. All worth it! At the end of the day, all the ingredients mix together to form something beautiful and delicious. Like the taste of a glorious hallaca, a pastel or a tamal. Next time you eat one, take the time to enjoy all the flavors and the labor of love it took to make them.
Stay safe, stay cultured,
PS: Happy New Year's Eve!