My experience in Venezuela was somewhat unusual in the sense that I was hidden away inside a virtual palace, and working a little too much to get out much. But I was working with Venezuelans, learning the local flavors, techniques and dishes while cooking for a very high profile family. At first, the cuisine seemed simple in technique but with loads of flavor, most dishes being very time consuming and made with alot of love. This was evident in the preparation of the Hallacus, a three-day process, which is a traditional dish exchanged during Christmas between families and friends. Hallacus is a delicious, Hen-filled (can be Beef, Chicken or other Meat at other times of year) Corn Pancake wrapped and tied in Plantain Leaves and then steamed.
While it was easy to get absorbed in the new flavors and cooking techniques, I had to wonder: where do these dishes and culinary techniques come from? I needed to make a market run, but with fresh deliveries made to the estate on a daily basis, I had been instructed to remain within the grounds. Finally, after alot of bugging, my request to make a market run was approved, reluctantly. With an armed bodyguard by my side, I was able to allow my creativity to flow through the abundance of market-fresh Fruits and Vegetables.
Heaps of Mangos, Papayas, Pineapples, and a large variety of Veggies—awesome! Corn was abundant and it was clearly a main staple starch, together with rice and beans, served with most meals as a side to Fish or other Seafood, Beef, Chicken or Pork. While wandering around the market, it became clear to me that Venezuelan cuisine includes influences from the Spanish, the Africans, the Natives and the Caribbean cultures, and as a result it is full of complex flavors.
Venezuela is a very beautiful country, with mountains, rain forests and a Caribbean coastline (within eyeshot of the famous Caribbean Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). It is also a country of social extremes, with extreme poverty and extreme wealth, although certain foods are eaten by all, rich and poor. For example, Arepas, fried or baked Corn Pancakes, plain or filled, are eaten by all Venezuelans at anytime of the day as a snack or side-dish. Plantains (cooking Bananas) are also enjoyed by all, and are considered as important as Corn to Venezuelans. Eaten at different stages of ripeness, Plantains can be fried, baked, mashed or grilled.
Some of the traditional Venezuelan dishes that I can recommend are:
Empanadas – Deep-fried Cornmeal Turnover, stuffed with Meat, Fish or Cheese
Chupe de Pescado – Fish Soup
Chupe Crilollo – Chicken Soup
Chahapas – Corn Pancakes
Ensalada de Pollo – Chicken Salad, traditional style
Albondigas Venezuelans – Venezuelan Meatballs
Hallacas – Meat-stuffed Corn Pancakes wrapped in Plantain Leaves and steamed
Muchacho – Roast Loin of Beef in a Savory Sauce
Papellon – Shredded Beef, Rice, Bean and Fried Plantain
Sancocho – Fish Stew with Vegetables
Arroz con Leche – Creamed Rice