Caracas Christmas: Wrapped in Banana Leaves

In Venezuela, many people celebrate Christmas with a distinctive culinary tradition. But making hallacas — turbo-charged tamales that are both savory and sweet — is hard work.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Merry Christmas, I'm Renee Montagne.

And there will be traditional favorites on the table when families sit down to Christmas dinner everywhere.

NPR's Julie McCarthy recently traveled to Caracas, and has this report on how the holidays in Venezuela come wrapped in a banana leaf.

JULIE MCCARTHY: No Venezuela Christmas would be complete without the hallaca.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: I know.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: While many homes prepare their own, special hallaca makers start taking orders early from what is Venezuela's signature holiday dish. This Christmas delicacy - that can take days to prepare - looks like a green-colored package tied up with string. The wrapping is the banana - or plantain - leaf, encasing what could be called a turbo-charged tamale.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)

MCCARTHY: A spacious open-air room atop a three-story house, houses the kitchen of the veritable queen of hallacas in Caracas. Senora Carmen de Purroy shares a picturesque street, lined with other cooks who cater to Venezuela's Christmas craving. Chopping and cutting, an assembly line of workers, mostly women, sits around a vast wooden table where Senora Carmen presides.

CARMEN DE PURROY: (Through translator) It's very hard work. Some of us get up at two in the morning to start preparing. And the women here come highly recommended. They know the job of making hallaca. And the men here, well, they're family. And it's because we make quality, that we can sell quantity.

MCCARTHY: A kerchief covers Carmen's hair, swollen feet dangle from a stool, an apron drapes her plump frame. The matriarch of this beehive-busy kitchen sweeps her hand across the table, groaning under the weight of ingredients, and ticks off a list that would impress gourmet or gourmand alike.

DE PURROY: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Garlic cloves, green onions, cilantro, celery, tuna, capers, raisins, red peppers, olives and wine. Add hen, or beef, or pork - or all three, she says - to make a stew. Leave them out for vegetarian hallaca, increasingly popular among her health-conscious clientele, Carmen says.

The aroma of steaming poultry fills this Christmas kitchen. Brimming vats of hens - female birds are tastier, Carmen claims - bubble and churn the base for the stew. Maize, by the burlap bagsful, become the golden, reddish dough that's rolled flat and filled with spoonfuls of the stew.

The doughy rectangles are bundled into a carefully cut and secured banana leaf. Carmen rents a separate house where a team of men prepares the leaves. A little bit Spanish, a little bit African, a little bit indigenous - the hallaca is an icon of Venezuela's multi-cultural history. Zanina Ramboa(ph), a local expert on folklore, says there are two theories on when the hallaca started.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOILING STEW)

ZANINA RAMBOA: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Some say it's indigenous. Some say it's African. But the belief is, she says, that during colonial times, the slaves gathered up the leftovers from the great feasts that European landowners held during this time of year, which were full of imported goods like tuna. They wrapped them up in dough and cooked them, she says.

Carmen prefers to believe the hallaca started with the indigenous of Venezuela. She packs visitors off for the sample of what turns out to be a heavenly combination of savory and sweet, with just a hint of heat. The secret to her recipe - skill and love, she says. And a doctor's advice after her triple bypass surgery.

DE PURROY: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Keep working, he told me - she says.

So this, in her 45th year of making hallacas, Senora Carmen expects to sell some 6,000 of them this season - rising in the middle of the night to prepare the gastronomic delight that will grace tables across Caracas this Christmas.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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