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There’s nothing like home cooking with friends

The command center

They say that home is where you hang your hat, and that’s certainly true for many of us expats. Grandparents and parents have passed away, and children are scattered around up north, starting their own families, creating their own homes and generating their own traditions.

My hat is hung here in Cuenca with Jackie.

We happen to be particularly lucky in that several months ago, we invited Jackie’s business partner, a young Venezuelan man and his fiancé, to live with us. They have a couple of cousins, a brother, and other good friends also in Cuenca, and they have collectively become a close surrogate family for us.

The prepper

Last week, they all converged on our house to establish an assembly line to prepare a traditional Venezuelan dish, hallacas, in sufficient quantity to feed Somalia, or at least a dozen people at Christmas Eve and on New Year’s.

Hallacas are somewhat similar in appearance to Ecuadorian tamales, but the similarities end there. The contents are a delicious combination of pork, beef and chicken, various spices and vegetables, in a layer of arepa dough, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled.

First, a small amount of some kind of reddish spicy oil was smoothed onto the washed banana leaves. Then a ball of arepa dough was dropped onto the oil and carefully pressed out into a flat disk. Then the assembly line layered seasoned meat, bell peppers, green olives, additional chicken, onions, some kind of salty green thing, and other mystery stuff. Finally, the whole thing was carefully folded into a banana leaf packet, securely tied up and dropped into boiling water.

The raw materials

They made a jillion of them and put them in our freezer (We had brought a small chest freezer from the U.S.) to await the festivities.

We were able to sample a couple before freezing, and they were juicy, full of flavor, and absolutely delicious. The spices were not picante but the explosion of flavor was surprising and difficult to describe. It was a lovely combination of spice, sweet and salty.

* * * *
Most of the guests have arrived and the tables are set. There is Venezuelan music playing not quite loud, definitely not in the background. The Kitchen Bosses are swaying to the music while busy with whatever on the counters. Dogs are roaming from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room back to the kitchen, hoping that a hallacas might make a leap for freedom right into their drooling mouths.

Meanwhile, the cats have disappeared.

Wrapping it up

Some of the guests are on WhatsApp, connecting tearfully with family still in Venezuela, sharing videos of all of us here and seeing the celebrations back home amid the chaos unimaginable to many of us.  here are about four different raucous conversations going on, one of them with a 6-month-old baby.

Here we are, all immigrants from four different continents.  We have Catholics, a Buddhist, Native American, atheist and some kind of South American indigenous religion, all gathered in peace, respect and love over a table laid with beautiful local food.

We are grateful for this wonderful familial experience here in Cuenca. No matter where you are, Jackie and I believe it is possible to find opportunities to meet people who have chosen to love each other irrespective of an accident of birth. We definitely found those opportunities here.

So that is our food review for this week.

It is my hope that you all had a heartfelt holiday season and experience a remarkable 2019!