Sujhey Beisser’s unwritten recipe

These Venezuelan hallacas are made from memory
Sujhey Beisser’s unwritten recipe
Photo by Chris Hynes

There is no written recipe for hallacas (pronounced eye-YA-kahs), the savory Venezuelan tamales passed down through generations and served hot to celebrate Christmas. Sujhey Beisser follows her instinct and her childhood memories, then makes the recipe her own.

Gather the family in the kitchen and task each member with a job; this will be a labor of love, and it may take days. Measure the ingredients with care and muscle memory: a sweeping armful of corn flour and annatto to form the golden pouch that tastes like buttery sunshine; a heart-sized handful of capers, raisins and olives; your grandmother’s own special blend of chicken, pork and beef melting into one. Let the little ones peel the garlic, chop the onions and peppers, clean the plantain leaves for wrapping. Fold in all the family stories, your gratitude for the year before, your hopes for the year ahead. Bind with kitchen string and boil.

“When you take that first bite, for me it’s just going back to my childhood, remembering my grandma and my uncles and everyone around the table,” says the native Venezuelan, who attended a summer program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee nearly two decades ago, met the man who would become her husband and stayed. “When I had my kids, I wanted to make sure they understand where I come from, and I think food is how you understand a culture.”

Madison is no Venezuela, where Beisser could wander into her backyard, reach out a hand and pick an avocado, lemon, mango, coconut, tomato or watermelon. But she can kneel in her garden with her children, take them to farms and farmers markets, pick strawberries in June and simmer pumpkin soup in October. Come December, she can show them what Christmas tastes like, and who they are, with her hallacas.

For more Festive Foods, click here.