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From Hallacas to Horchata, the Tastes of Latin America's Holiday Season

Mesa con postres navideños. Imagen tomada de la cuenta en Flickr de Carlos Guevara bajo licencia Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Table of Christmas desserts. Image taken from the Flickr account of Carlos Guevara under licence of Creative Commons (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

The last month of the calendar for many cultures is December. A month that irrespective of whether a country is located in the northern or southern hemisphere — determining whether it is summer or winter– serves as an excuse to unite families around a table.

But what's on that table depends on where in the world you are. A few days ago we explored romeritos and bacalao a la Vizcaína (Biscayne style cod), two dishes that are traditionally served during the festive season in Mexico. On this occasion, let's go beyond Mexico to find out what is served on the tables of other Latin American countries.

We will begin with Peru. Global Voices contributor Gabriela García Calderón Orbe tells us that in Peru, as in the United States of America, turkey is the traditional food of choice, before going on to explain the presentation of Peruvian dinner table during the holiday season:

Las mesas peruanas en Navidad se visten de manteles rojos y verdes, y encima lucen al absoluto favorito de estas fechas: el pavo al horno. Si bien hay pavo todo el año, es en Navidad cuando se consume más.  Como no todos tienen en casa hornos grandes, las panaderías ofrecen el servicio de horneado el mismo 24 de diciembre.  Esto se acompaña con puré de manzana y ensalada hecha con papa, mayonesa y manzana.

Algunas casas varían la tradición y comen lechón en vez de pavo, pero de lejos, el plato navideño por excelencia es el pavo al horno.

At Christmas, Peruvian dinner tables are draped in red and green tablecloths, and on top sits the outright seasonal favourite: roast turkey. Although turkey is eaten throughout the year, at Christmas time it is consumed more. Because not everyone has a large oven at home, the nation’s bakeries offer the services of their ovens on 24 December. This meal is accompanied by apple sauce and a salad made from potato, mayonnaise and apple. Some houses offer variations on the tradition and eat stuffed roast pork, but by far, the main Christmas dish is roast turkey.

And for something sweet? Gabriela describes what compliments the turkey at a Peruvian Christmas.

El otro rey indiscutible de la Navidad es el panetón, acompañado de chocolate caliente. Es un complemento algo contradictorio, si tenemos en cuenta que en el hemisferio sur el verano empieza en diciembre, pero de todas maneras, mucha gente acompaña su panetón con chocolate caliente en Navidad. Los hay de todo precio y para el gusto de todos, incluso los hay aptos para diabéticos y celíacos.

The other undisputed king of Christmas is Panettone, accompanied by hot chocolate. It’s a slightly contradictory addition, if we take into account that in the southern hemisphere summer begins in December, but anyway, many people accompany their Panettone with hot chocolate. These come in all prices and preferences, even including suitable versions for diabetics and those with coeliac disease.

Lechón (stuffed Colombian roast pork). Photo courtesy of the Global Voices collaborator Laura Schneider

Gabriela referenced stuffed roast pork, which according to Global Voices contributor Laura Schneider in Argentina, is also one of the main culinary features of Argentina. Just like in Peru, the process of oven roasting can be undertaken in a bakery or establishment in possession of a large oven:

En Argentina la comida típica es el lechón que se prepara asado o se suele encargar en las panaderías ya asado para comerlo a la noche frío.  El lechón se acompaña con vitel toné (un platillo de origen italiano, hecho con ternera, que se sirve frío) y ensaladas variadas.  Otros cambian el lechón por el tradicional asado.  Recién a las  00:00 horas (medianoche) se brinda con champagne o sidra, pan dulce, budines y turrones, y por supuesto la llegada de Papá Noel con los regalos que a pesar de ser verano en el hemisferio sur, el pobre Papá Noel se viste como si fuese a nevar y hacer frío.

In Argentina, the typical food eaten is stuffed roast pork which is grilled or usually ordered in the nation’s bakeries already barbecued, ready to eat cold that night. Stuffed roast pork is accompanied with vitel toné (a dish of Italian origin, made with veal, served cold) and a variety of salads. Others swap stuffed roast pork for the traditional barbecued meat. A recent custom is to cheers at midnight with champagne or cider, pastries, puddings and cakes, and of course the arrival of poor Father Christmas with presents, who despite it being summer in the southern hemisphere, is dressed as if it were going to be very cold with snow.

Vitello Tonnato. Foto de Diádoco utilizada con licencia CC.

Vitello tonnato. Photo by Diádoco via Wikipedia. CC BY 2.0

In Ecuador, according to Global Voices contributor Gina Yauri, turkey is what is most often prepared, but the side dishes differ, including in Loja — a small city in the southern part of the country.

La gran mayoría de familias cenamos pavo relleno. Éste es acompañado del tradicional arroz navideño y ensalada rusa acompañada de la bebida tradicional de Loja: la horchata, mezcla de diferentes hierbas aromáticas producidas en los campos.

La preparación del pavo relleno es con carne molida, y chancho; el arroz navideño es con pimiento y pasas.  La ensalada rusa es con papa, alverja y zanahoria mezclada con mayonesa. Ya depende gustos lo que se desee cenar en Nochebuena. También lo típico en Loja es cenar pernil al horno.

The large majority of families dine with stuffed turkey. This is accompanied by traditional Christmas rice and Russian salad, along with the traditional drink of Loja: horchata, mixed with different aromatic herbs produced in the fields.

The turkey stuffing is made with minced meat and pork, and the Christmas rice is with peppers and raisins. Russian salad is with potato, peas and carrot mixed with mayonnaise. The flavour of the dinner eaten on Christmas Eve depends on personal preferences. Baked ham is also typically eaten for dinner in Loja.

Ham or pork leg is also an element of Colombian Christmas cuisine, says Global Voices contributor Lully Posada:

Las carnes procesadas como el pernil de cerdo se incluyen en el plato fuerte, se sirve una porción acompañada de arroz, el cual es arreglado de diversas formas.  El cerdo también se come mucho de diferentes maneras de preparación tales como asado, sancocho, fritos o a la lechona.

Processed meats such as pork leg are included in the main dish and served with an accompanying portion of rice, which is arranged in a variety of ways. Pork is also prepared and eaten in many different ways, such as grilled, stewed, fried or in stuffed roast pork.

Lechona. Foto de Tamorlan utilizada con licencia CC.

Lechona (stuffed roast pork). Photo by Tamorlan via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

Lully tells us further about the drinks that accompany these delights:

En las celebraciones, las comidas son acompañadas con bebidas alcohólicas como la cerveza, el vino, el aguardiente y el ron.  Sin embargo, hay algunas regiones donde la chicha ―una bebida artesanal a base de maíz― se mezcla también con alcohol.

In the celebrations, food is accompanied by alcoholic drinks like beer, wine, aguardiente (a popular Colombian anise-flavoured liquor derived from sugar cane) and rum. However, there are some regions where la chicha — an artisan drink made from maize — is also mixed with alcohol.

Lastly, Lully explains the kinds of tamales found on Colombian dinner tables:

Los tamales también son bienvenidos en las celebraciones de diciembre.  Pueden ser de cerdo o pollo y están envueltos en una hoja de plátano que la mayoría de veces se sirve junto con arepa o chocolate.

Tamales are also welcomed during the festive celebrations. They can be made from pork or chicken and are wrapped in a plantain leaf, which most of the time is served with arepa or chocolate.

Tamales — served in many Latin American countries, and more characteristically used in Mexico in their celebration of the Catholic feast Candlemas at the start of February each year — are also eaten in Venezuela. As Global Voices author Juan Ernesto Páez-Pumar puts it, it is not only the consumption, but also the preparation of the dish that brings families together:

La hallaca es el emblema culinario de la Navidad venezolana.  Esta suerte de “tamal agrandado” tiene varias versiones sobre su origen, uno de ellos se relaciona con el título que nos precede: de allá y de acá, para significar que es una síntesis de insumos traídos por los europeos y otros autóctonos de América.  La preparación de la hallaca es todo un ritual, que por lo general reúne a familias completas.  Primero por lo laborioso que resulta el proceso de preparación, que comprende varias etapas complejas, desde la adecuación de las hojas de plátano para envolverlas, pasando por la masa hasta lo que para muchos es lo más importante: el guiso o relleno.

La hallaca (Venezuelan tamal) is the culinary emblem of the Venezuelan Christmas. There are various theories about the origin of this sort of large tamal. One of them is related to idea of “from here and from there” (de allá y de acá, in Spanish), meaning that it's a synthesis of products brought by the Europeans and other Native American groups.”. The preparation of la hallaca is a ritual that in general unites all the family together. Firstly due to the laborious process of preparation, comprising of several complex steps, from checking the adequacy of plantain leaves for wrapping, to mixing the dough, until what for many is the most important part: the stew or filling.

Amarre de la hallaca. Foto de Elmer Junio Zambrano utilizada con licencia CC.

Tying the “hallaca”. Photo by Elmer Junio Zambrano via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

On the filling of las hallacas, Juan Ernesto says:

Resulta también un alimento muy completo, por lo variopinto de sus ingredientes, que incluye carne de res, gallina, pollo, cerdo, aceitunas, alcaparras, pimentón, pasas y cebolla. El maíz está en su exquisita masa teñida de amarillo por el caldo del onoto.  Desde finales de noviembre, en Venezuela comienza a sentirse ese olor característico y muchos suben a las redes una alegre foto con la leyenda: “La primera del año”, en referencia al estreno del bocado en su menú.

It also turns out to be a very complete food, due to the variation of its ingredients, which includes beef, gallina (older, fattier, yellower form of chicken meat), chicken, pork, olives, capers, paprika, raisins and onion. The maize is in its exquisite dough form, dyed yellow thanks to the annatto broth. In Venezuela, from late November, you start to notice this characteristic smell, leading many to upload photos to social media with the caption: “The first hallaca of the year”, in reference to the snack's premiere on their menu.

In Costa Rica, like in almost all of Mesoamerica, it’s common to eat tamales. Global Voices contributor Alejandra Montiel tells us:

Lo mejor de los tamales y por lo que se les juzga es por el sabor de la masa, que en cada familia varía. El relleno básico lleva arroz, que toma color amarillo porque se cocina en achiote, garbanzos, chile dulce, un bien pedazo de cerdo, encurtido en mostaza y zanahoria”.

The best part of tamales and what it is judged on is the flavour of its dough, which varies in every family. The basic filling is made up of rice that takes a yellow colour due to being cooked in annato oil, chickpeas, sweet peppers and a quality piece of pork, pickled with mustard and carrot.

Like in Venezuela, making tamales is a big party, usually done with family or friends.

For those with a sweet tooth, there is the Christmas cake. It is a variation of a dry cake, with added dried fruits and nuts left to marinate in rum for a long period of time. Alejandra says:

A veces pasa que por la cantidad de licor que le ponen, basta comerse una tajada para empezar a ver lucecitas”, dice Alejandra. “Todo eso se baja con rompope, una bebida de leche y huevo a la que se le agrega licor de contrabando. En Costa Rica hay monopolio del Estado en la producción de licor”.

Sometimes due to the quantity of liquor added, you only need to eat one slice and you start seeing little lights. All this is enjoyed with eggnog, a drink made of milk and egg to which bootleg liquor is added. In Costa Rica there is a state monopoly on the production of liquor.

Readers, tell us what is on your table during these festive days in the comments section below.

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