Recipe: How to Make Hallacas with Mercedes Golip

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The hallaca is corn masa tamale-like preparation filled with a stew (guiso), traditionally made of beef, chicken and pork; and garnishes that vary per region and even family recipes.

This recipe and content has been provided by friend and fellow masaphile, Mercedes Golip. Photos by Patrick Dolande.

The hallaca is corn masa tamal-like preparation filled with a stew (guiso), traditionally made of beef, chicken and pork; and garnishes that vary per region and even family recipes. The whole preparation is wrapped in a piece of banana leaf and tied with twine to then be steamed or boiled.

The hallaca preparation is a family tradition. An assembly line of friends and family that gather to cook, catch up and leave issues behind; while listening to music, having some wine or rum and picking a chore. Growing up I was in charge of the garnishes, my little 10 year old hands were tasked to assemble dozens of trays where I would carefully pile up: two raw onion rings, a julienne of red bell pepper, ten raisins, two olives, two almonds and six capers — almost in a meditative state of mind.

There is no right or wrong recipe to make hallacas, every family takes pride on their own and most times it’s a well guarded secret. The quality of the masa can make it or break it. Its consistency and texture are key — too hard and the end result will be dry and grainy, too wet and it will fall apart. The masa is made with cooked white corn or white corn flour, broth, annatto oil, salt and some recipes also include lard. Once everything is mixed together and you get the right consistency it’s important to try it, it should be a bit salty because some of that flavor will be lost in the boiling water.

To me, hallacas have meant different things throughout these years that I have been far from Venezuela. First, they were a way to cope with the distance and everything I was missing out on when I left everything behind, especially at this time of the year. It has become a dish I make with pride, local ingredients and a Venezuelan soul.

Hallacas by Mercedes Golip

The hallaca is corn masa tamale-like preparation filled with a stew (guiso), traditionally made of beef, chicken and pork; and garnishes that vary per region and even family recipes.
Prep Time 8 hrs
Cook Time 1 hr
Course Appetizer, Main Course, Side Dish
Cuisine Venezuelan
Servings 20 hallacas


Stew Filling (guiso)

  • 2.25 pounds pork loin, chopped in one-inch cubes
  • 2.25 pounds stew beef, chopped in one-inch cubes 
  • 1 whole chicken
  • 250 ml neutral oil (organic canola, sunflower or grapeseed)
  • 1 pound onion, chopped
  • 1/4 pound leeks, chopped white part only, reserve the top of greens for the broth
  • 1/8 pound scallions, chopped white part only, reserve the top of greens for the broth
  • 1/4 cup garlic, minced
  • 10 whole habanada peppers or ají dulce, if available
  • 2/3 cup white wine
  • 1/2 pound papelón (also known as pillocillo or panela,) crushed
  • 1/2 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/3 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 cups chicken broth


  • 1.5 cups neutral oil, organic vegetable shortening or lard
  • 4 pounds fresh white corn masa* *You can also make the masa using corn flour. You will need 2 pounds of flour, 2 cups broth, 6 to 8 cups of water (depending on the flour and the same amount of oil and annatto seeds.
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoon annatto seeds


  • 1/2 pound red bell peppers roasted, skinned, deseeded and cut julienne
  • 30 whole almonds skinned
  • 1 pound onions cut into 1/4 inch rings
  • 1/4 cup capers
  • 40 whole olives pepper stuffed
  • 3/4 cup raisins


  • 5.5 pounds plantain leaves
  • cooking twine


Chicken Broth

  • This is a time consuming recipe, prep and organization is key. The day before making the guiso, I like to wash and chop all the vegetables, saving all the trimmings to make the broth with the whole chicken, adding enough water to cover the meat, salt and spices to taste. Simmer for 1-2 hours until the chicken is tender and fully cooked.
  • Once ready, let it cool and remove the chicken from the broth, let it chill, shred the meat and reserve for the guiso. Strain the broth and let it rest in the fridge until ready to use.
  • This chicken broth will be a key layer in the flavors for the preparation of the guiso and the masa. Make it rich by cooking it slowly to extract the most out of the chicken and the veggie scraps.

Prep the leaves

  • Plantain leaves can be found frozen or fresh. Regardless of that they will need prep. First unwrap them and separate the leaves. Remove the vein with scissors and wash them in warm water.
  • Rub and dry them with a clean towel and cut in big squares that you’ll use to spread the masa and wrap the hallaca. Cover and keep in the fridge.


  • In a big pot – we call it caldero in Venezuela – heat up the neutral oil and start adding the vegetables. First, add the onions, leeks and scallions until they become translucent, about 5 minutes. Then add the garlic, peppers and ají dulce or habanada.
  • When everything is soft and the juices start to release, add the rest of the ingredients: wine, papelon, paprika, black pepper, salt and the chicken broth.
  • Once all is incorporated add the beef and the pork loin and simmer for about one to two hours, until the meats are tender. Once you get there add the chicken and cook for 30 more minutes.
  • Let it chill and taste the level of salt. It has to be a bit salty, it will lose some of that salt to the masa and the boiling water.
  • The guiso is always better the day after once the flavors have combined and developed. It’s also easier to handle when it’s cold and all the juices take a gelatinous consistency.


  • Warm up the fat in a small pot, add the annatto seeds and simmer until they release their color and distinctive nutty flavor into the fat. Remove from the heat as soon as the fat turns into a bright red-yellow color. Strain and discard the seeds.
  • Prepare the masa in a deep container mixing the fresh masa (or flour preparation) with one cup of the colored fat, chicken broth and salt.
  • Mix by hand or with the help of a stand mixer. The masa will be ready when all the ingredients are incorporated and the texture is smooth, pliable and it does not stick to the hands. You can rectify the texture by adding more masa, flour or liquid.
  • From here, you can shape the masa into balls (a ball around the size of an orange for good measure.) You can also scoop and spread directly on the  plantain leaves.


  • Set up all your ingredients on a big table.
    The clean and cut leaves: a big rectangle to spread the masa and wrap, a smaller rectangle to secure the wrap and a smaller stripe to secure all around.
    Cooking twine and scissors.
    Arrange all the garnishes in containers: roasted bell pepper julienne, almonds, onion rings, capers, stuffed olives and raisins.
    Masa, annato oil and guiso.
  • Start assembling each hallaca by preparing the plantain leaves with a teaspoon of annato oil and spread or press about 100g of masa on the leaves (you can also press the masa balls in between two oiled plantain leaves with the help of a tortilla press.)
  • Using the bigger leave rectangles, add 3-4 tablespoons of guiso in the center of the masa and top with the garnishes (one bell pepper julienne, one almond, one teaspoon of capers, one or two olives (depending on the size) 2 teaspoons of raisins.)
  • Fold and shape the hallaca: Take the two diagonal opposite corners and fold until both ends meet in the center, enclosing the stuffing. Fold the other two opposite corners underneath to hallaca to close it like an envelope in a rectangular shape.
  • Using the smaller size leaf rectangles add another wrapping layer following the rectangular shape. Lastly, use the little leaf belts all around to secure the corners. Make sure the guiso is not leaking.
  • Tie with cooking twine crossing the hallacas two times, vertically and horizontally, to secure all the sides and finish with a knot.
  • Repeat this procedure to make each hallaca.
  • Boil or steam in a big pot with salted water for 45 minutes to one hour.

Make ahead

  • Hallacas can be made in advance and in my opinion they taste better the following day when all the flavors are settled. They can be refrigerated for about a week.
  • Reheat them in boiling water for 10-15 minutes, unwrap and enjoy.
Keyword hallaca, tamal
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