Soup's on at Pica Pica
Adriana Lopez Vermut, owner of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen in the Oxbow Market, with a bowl of Guiso soup, a traditional Venezuelan Christmas favorite, made with poultry, pork, beef and vegetables, J.L. Sousa/Register

A traditional holiday dish served up in Venezuelan homes mirrors the blend of races and cultures that makes up this urbanized South American nation.

Reflecting the broad Venezuelan palate — ranging from indigenous to Caribbean, Old World to New World Latin — a dish called “hallacas” is a centuries-old tradition handed down from generation to generation. Dating from the times of liberator Simon Bolivar some 200 years ago, recipes for hallacas are varied. Not only does each family make its own version, but the dish also goes through subtle changes from the northern extensions of the Andes to the large cities in the north, from the llanos (high plains) that stretch from the Colombian border in the far west to the Orinoco River delta in the east.

Hallacas is, in short, a Venezuelan tamal stuffed with a stew-like mixture of hen, pork and beef (“guiso”). As in other Spanish-speaking countries, making hallacas in Venezuela means business. The process is long and involves many family members who reunite to make a huge batch to eat throughout “La Navidad.”

Families work like an assembly line. Children clean the leaves used for wrapping, mothers make the “guiso” and fillings, the youngest put the hallacas together and the eldest tie them.

Another interesting fact is that making hallacas is customary in all social strata and among people of all religious backgrounds.

As this is a dish for Yuletide holidays, the folks at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen and Bar in Oxbow Public Market in Napa served it last month.

The flavors — which combine sweet, hot and sour — were so popular with customers that partners Adriana Lopez Vermut and Luis Sosa have turned the guiso (pronounced gee — as in geese — soh), into a savory winter soup.

The main ingredients are “gallina,” or hen, pork and beef, with the addition of vegetables, capers, olives, raisins and chiles — indicative of Spain’s influence on Venezuelan cookery.

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Because hallacas take a long time to prepare, along with the guiso, it’s a dish for celebration, notes Leopoldo Lopez, a Caracas financier-turned-restaurateur who serves as inspiration for his daughter’s venture and menu.

The guiso recipe was perfected by Leopoldo’s great-grandmother, he says, and now he’s handed it down to his offspring.

The savory, toothsome guiso is the latest addition to the menu at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen and Bar, served along with the ever-popular arepas, cachapas, empanadas and signature Maize’wich.

Adriana and her father agreed to share their time-honored recipe with Register readers, with the proviso that those who intend to make this guiso should know that it is time-consuming. In addition, Adriana said that since it takes a long time to stew a hen, cooking time can be reduced by using any good chicken.

In addition to the guiso, we’ve included other recipes today for winter soups, ranging from a favorite of Greek cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi — a regular at the annual Worlds of Flavor conferences at CIA Greystone — to one from the Heinz Tomato Ketchup Cookbook.

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