Embracing the language, moral codes, rituals, religion and norms within different societies, culture involves the elements that are passed on through generations and define the attitudes and behaviors adopted within specific geographical regions. Different activities and beliefs reflect the elements of specific cultures; elements that are understood and shared by individuals who act in ways previously established by tradition.
Have you ever wondered about the typical traditions of other cultures during Christmas time? Being the most special time of the year, Venezuelan Christmas traditions are very rich because of the variety of cultures that have been assimilated into its society. There are many Venezuelan traditions during Christmas and also many traditional meals prepared and devoured during this time, and as much as I would like to talk about them all, I’ll focus today on the food since I love eating so much, and since I’m at my house anxiously waiting for our Christmas dinner to be ready.
I’ll tell you about some of the main Christmas dishes prepared in Venezuela during this time of the year, which are also Christmas dishes that you are not likely to find in any other culture. The Hallaca, Pan de Jamón, Torta Negra, Dulce de Lechosa and Ponche Crema are the main protagonist dishes that conform the classic Venezuelan Christmas dinner.
The most traditional Venezuelan-Christmas-dinner dish is the Hallaca. The Hallaca is a savory pastry made of a yellow-color cornmeal dough filled with stew, wrapped with banana leaves and cooked to mix the flavors. This sole dish has the influence of three cultures. The white one, because of the European ingredients such as raisins, nuts, and olives that the Hallacas contain; the native one, because of the cornmeal colored with onoto seeds, and the black one from which we obtain the banana leaves used to cook the food. There are different types of Hallaca depending on each region of the country. The original Hallacas are made with different kinds of chopped meat such as pork, poultry, and beef as well as different condiments including green pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes and spices. Hallacas require hours of preparation and the whole family usually reaunites to make them.
The Hallaca dough is prepared with the cornmeal and colored with the onoto seeds; then, portions of the dough are extended over squared pieces of banana leaves previously cleaned. The pre-cooked stew, that is usually made the night before preparation of Hallacas, is then added, and the banana leaves are finally folded to form rectangular bags that are tied with kitchen string and boiled in huge pots for approximately an hour. The Hallacas can be kept in the refrigerator for two or three weeks and they are boiled for a few minutes and removed from the banana leaves before serving. The flavors are unique and this dish is a personal favorite during Christmas. Although the Hallacas are usually prepared on Christmas, they could be prepared during any time of the year. Some people like to prepare them and freeze them so that they can have Hallacas throughout the year, and this exquisite dish is typically served with chicken salad and ham bread.
In addition to the Hallacas, Venezuelan Christmas are inconceivable without the Pan de Jamón or ham bread. I can guarantee that all Venezuelans living far way from their homeland, dream with their Christmas Hallacas and Pan de Jamón. Fortunately, there are some specialized Venezuelan bakeries scattered throughout the world such as those found in South Florida or The Canary Islands in which the prized Venezuelan Christmas food can be found. The Pan de Jamón is a long, jellyroll-like bread filled with ham, olives, and raisins. This kind of bread dates back to the 1900’s. It doesn’t seem to have an ancient history, but it has become an essential dish in the Venezuelan Christmas dinner.
Today, every family has its own recipe, and every bakery in the country assures that its ham bread is the best. The ham bread can be made with the original flour dough or puffy pastry. As I mentioned before, it is made with olives, raisins, ham and sometimes bacon. For its preparation, the dough is made with regular flour and once ready, it is extended in rectangular portions of approximately 12 by 15 inches. A layer of ham is then placed over the dough pieces and the olives and raisins are then added. The dough pieces are finally rolled and placed on metal trays into the oven for cooking during 25 to 30 minutes. After the ham breads are ready, you can store them in plastic bags for a few days and slice them before serving.
Of course no meal is complete without dessert and drinks, so besides the Hallacas and the ham bread, another main traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish is the Dulce de Lechosa or green papaya dessert. Even though I’m not a big fan of this dessert and although not every family prepares it, it still is a typical dessert frequently prepared for Christmas. The green papaya dessert consists of slim strips of green papaya that are cooked with a previously prepared brown sugar syrup combined with cinnamon and cloves. It is a very easy-to-make dessert usually preserved on glass jars and that serves as a delicious gift for friends and family members during Christmas.
Another typical dish is the Torta Negra (dark or black cake). Although this cake is not originally from Venezuela, it has however become one of the traditional desserts in our tables during this time of the year. The original recipe has been adapted to include some of the unique Venezuelan ingredients that yield this delicious and traditional recipe. Its delicate taste comes from the maceration process that characterizes the preparation of this cake. A variety of dry fruits such as nuts, almonds, and raisins are put to maceration for over a month before this recipe can actually be prepared and this is key to the dark cake. The fruits are left macerating in rum within a glass container stored at a place that receives no direct sunlight. After the month, these fruits are added to the recipe whose ingredients are the same as those used for preparing a typical cake: flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and vanilla.
Unlike the dishes mentioned above, the Ponche Crema is actually the typical drink consumed in Venezuela during Christmas time, and it is a beverage that has over 100 years of tradition in the country. It is said to have a “secret formula” that combines four main natural ingredients to obtain a fine and delicious eggnog-like drink, which today represents the heritage of most Venezuelans. The Ponche Crema is a cream-based liquor whose recipe can also vary from region to region, but that is usually prepared with ingredients such as milk, rum, eggs, vanilla and condensate milk. This beverage resembles the American eggnog, and unlike the rest of the Venezuelan dishes except for the dark cake, it is today produced at the industrial level. The Ponche Crema can be stored for long periods of time at room temperature; temperature at which this drink can be served other than fridge cold. Its texture is soft and creamy with a sweet taste. This drink can also serve as the base for cocktails and other drinks when blended with different juices and ice.
The Hallaca, Pan de Jamón, Torta Negra, Dulce de Lechosa and Ponche Crema are some of the most important dishes of the Venezuelan Crhistmas dinner. They are part of the tradition of this culture and they provide a warm and great environment that all Venezuelans enjoy during this time of the year. It doesn’t matter where we are, we keep these traditions alive from one generation to another as Christmas dinner is a great moment of familiar union that everyone enjoys sharing with their loved ones in every place around the world.