A little bit European, a little bit indigenous, and a little bit African, the unique and tasty hallaca is said to have its origins in the plantation days of colonial Venezuela when there was still slave ownership. Popular myth has it that it was common practice for the plantation owners to donate leftover Christmas food scraps such as bits of pork and beef to their slaves, who would wrap them in cornmeal and plaintain leaves for subsequent preparation and cooking. A more likely history of the origins of this food, however, may point to ancestors from abroad.
An alternate theory of its origins denotes the similarity of the hallaca to the Spanish empanada gallega (Galician pastry), emphasizing the fact that the filling of the hallaca is almost identical — with the substitution of the plain flour with maize, and the plantain leaf for the expensive iron casts not readily available to the new world at the time. However, the most likely ancestor of the maize body and plantain envelope of the hallaca is the tamale. In fact, some people from western Venezuela (primarily in Zulia, Falcón and Lara states) use the terms "tamar" and "tamare" to refer to what is basically a bollo — the closest version of the tamale in Venezuela — with a simple meat filling.
The hallaca is the staple Venezuelan Christmas dinner dish and its preparation is practically limited to that time of the year. It is still prepared in a similar fashion to colonial times with some modern refinements. The hallaca is also considered one of the most representative icons of Venezuelan multicultural heritage, as its preparation includes European ingredients (such as raisins, nuts and olives), indigenous ingredients (corn meal colored with annatto seeds), and African ingredients (smoked banana or plantain leaves used for wrapping).
The traditional hallaca is made by extending a plantain leaf, greasing it with a spoonful of annatto-colored cooking oil and spreading on it a round portion of corn dough (roughly 30 cm), which is then sprinkled with pieces of stewed meat (pork, poultry, beef, lard, crisp or pork rind), raisins, nuts, pepper filled olives and occasionally boiled eggs. Then it is skillfully wrapped in an oblong fashion and tied with string in a typical square mesh before its cooking in boiling water. Afterwards, it is picked from the pail with a fork, unwrapped and served on its own plaintain leaves with chicken salad, pan de jamón (ham filled bread) or plain bread.
After making a number of hallacas, the remaining portion of ingredients is occasionally mixed together in order to obtain a uniform dough. The dough undergoes the same hallaca wrap and cooking preparation, although typically smaller in size and much fewer in number. The result is the bollo, which may be offered as a lighter option to the hallaca at lunch or dinner.
After cooking, hallacas can be frozen for several weeks with no changes in flavor. It is common for families to eat hallacas as late as early February.
Hallacas require many laborious hours of preparation and are made in large quantities (varying from a few dozen to several hundred). It is a job joyfully done by whole families, which engage in its preparation as a celebration and also as a reason for reuniting family members at Christmas time. The hallaca making party is matriarchal, having grandmothers and/or mothers in the lead roles. Traditional music and drinks contribute up the festive atmosphere, and images of mothers nagging children as they steal bits of fillings from the table and of men complaining of being left to clean leaves and to do last minute shoppings are typical during the party.
It is customary between families, neighbors and friends to share several hallacas as a way to evaluate the skills of the other party in their making. Another tradition is to offer them to any visitor.