CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Freshly greased plantain leaves, a kitchen splattered with corn meal, and festive music accompanied by generous amounts of alcohol all make up one of Venezuela’s most-enduring Christmas traditions: the gathering of family to prepare a corn dough tamale known as the hallaca.
But this year, the icon of the Venezuelan kitchen is under threat from the nation’s grinding economic crisis.
With inflation near a two-decade high of 54 percent, prices for many of the treat’s trademark ingredients have skyrocketed beyond the reach of many family budgets. And just finding some of the fixings can be an ordeal, with everything from vegetable oil to beef hard to come by as government price controls discourage production and contribute to record levels of food shortages.
“It’s very sad. I don’t know yet if we’ll be able to make any this year,” Maria Elena Ortiz, 35, said as she hunted in a Caracas supermarket for the 22 pounds of corn flour she and her family need to make their annual batch of about 80 hallacas.
The return of the familiar tradition is for many a welcome respite from a rocky year marked by the death of President Hugo Chavez, a disputed election to succeed him and, more recently, the shuttering of businesses accused of waging economic war against the government.
While tamales are common throughout Mexico, Central America and parts of South America, the Venezuelan variant stands out for its mixture of European, indigenous and African flavors that reflect the nation’s multicultural roots. That and the role it plays bringing families together in sometimes two-day cooking marathons add an extra seasoning that can’t be mass produced.
The corn dough filling of the hallaca is greased with annatto-colored cooking oil and topped with chicken and pork stew. Green olives, raisins and capers provide savory accents before the creation is wrapped in dried plantain leaves popular in Africa cuisine, tied in a rectangle and cooked in boiling water.