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Sorry, Tamales: Venezuelans Say Hallacas Are the Ultimate Christmas Dish

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A man with his arms outstretched wraps twine around a leaf-wrapped hallaca.
Victor Aguilera demonstrates his technique for tying up Venezuelan hallacas at a KQED live event on Dec. 12, 2023. Aguilera's business, Arepas en Bici, specializes in homemade Venezuelan foods. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.

As the son of Mexican immigrants — with one parent currently living in México and the other obsessively watching the Mexican soccer league’s playoffs as I write this — I’m about to get lambasted for saying the following: Forget about Mexican tamales on Nochebuena.

This year, I’m going for Venezuelan hallacas.

To be fair, hallacas are tamale-esque — masa-thick, meat-stuffed and delicately wrapped in banana leaves that are boiled and dispersed like little edible gifts around a table of hungry-mouthed, happy-eyed recipients.

But in the words of San Francisco-based foodmaker and Venezuelan immigrant Victor Aguilera, hallacas are much more than “Venezuelan tamales.” For starters, they’re heftier. That’s because they’re filled with guiso (a flavorful stew), veggies and a panoply of proteins (including a trifecta of chicken, beef and pork).


Aguilera — who opened his food operation, Arepas en Bici, during the COVID peak of shelter in place by delivering homemade arepas on his bicycle, up and down San Francisco’s steeply angled avenues — learned how to make hallacas and other Venezuelan holiday favorites, like pan de jamón, from his grandmother in Venezuela.

A drag performer in a bright orange dress, a chef wearing glasses, and a journalist in white sneakers sit on stage. The words "Arepas en Bici" are projected onto the screen behind them.
Drag performer Dulce de Leche and KQED Arts staff writer Alan Chazaro interviewed Aguilera (center) on stage during a tamal-themed KQED event. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Earlier this week, KQED hosted Aguilera — along with the chefs behind Om Sabor and Popoca — for a live event focused on holiday culinary traditions and the joy of hosting a good old-fashioned tamalada. I spoke with Aguilera to learn more about his memories of home, music, rum and — Venezuela’s Nochebuena centerpiece — hallacas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Alan Chazaro: What exactly are hallacas? They were served at KQED’s “Celebrating the Holidays with Tamales” live event. But they’re not tamales.

Victor Aguilera: Hallacas are a Venezuelan holiday food, traditionally served every Christmas, like tamales. Now that there are more Venezuelans in the U.S., they’re also being made for Thanksgiving as well. Sometimes they’re eaten at other times of the year, but it’s really mostly for the holidays with your family. The inside is very different from tamales. A tamal might have one protein and maybe cheese with salsa in the dough. Sometimes it can get dry, or if you’re lucky, it’s moist and has that juicy fat.

In hallacas, the filling is chicken, beef and pork — all three. It’s slow-cooked in a guiso, which is like a stew, using African- and French-influenced spices. You get this nice, beautiful guiso and then you put that in the hallaca. You add some raw onions, peppers, olives and raisins, then you stuff that in the plantain leaf and wrap it all in butcher’s twine and you boil it.

I love that. What does using a plantain leaf add to the flavor profile, as opposed to using a corn husk, which is more commonly seen throughout Northern Mexico and here in California?

I believe it’s moister. It gives a fresher, more dense flavor to the masa. If you think about it, there are more cuisines that use plantain leaves for their dishes as well. Steamed fish in Vietnam and rice cakes around different Asian countries. They like wrap food and other items in plantain leaves. It gives a nice, woody flavor.

Arepas en Bici is a clever name. You started out by actually selling arepas on your bicicleta, or bici, around San Francisco. Tell us about how that happened. And are you still pedaling around?

During the pandemic, I got laid off like everybody, and during a month of uncertainty — and, really, just survival mode kicking in —with the help of my fiancée, we started Arepas en Bici. We had $63 and started the business just by selling arepas on Instagram. I made a menu and had maybe two clients per day at first. Two weeks later I had an interview [with now KQED Food editor, Luke Tsai] at Eater SF and that gave like 2,000 followers added in less than a month. We had orders back to back to back. The laws were not fully in effect about what we could or couldn’t do, but we did our best trying to keep it all safe by making food at home and delivering it by bicycle. I was on Good Morning America and Telemundo.

Now we’re three years in, and as restaurants have opened again, business slowed down for us and we had to readjust. We’re not really operating from home anymore. I do some prep work, but usually we are [popping up] at different event spaces. We haven’t found our own location yet, unfortunately. But that’s the goal. We do private dinners and services. Catering. We’re about to work at a concert with about 200 people, serving holiday food and arepas as a seasonal menu, with pernil and asado negro.

What sort of Northern California influences have you introduced to your Venezuelan recipes?

We do lots of Venezuelan cuisine in a California farm-to-table setting; I also work with cannabis in food, too, using oils. Everything right now is farm to table. Two months ago, we switched to fully organic. I usually go to Heart of the City Farmers Market for my ingredients. If not, we’re using Bi Rite or Gus’s, which is purchased from local sources and farmers. That makes it easier for me. For my hallacas, I offer another version, it’s not the regular one — it’s vegan. That’s not common in Venezuela. We love our meat (laughs). But here in the Bay Area, there are many varieties of clientele, and I want everyone to try Venezuelan traditions.

Prior to Arepas en Bici, how long had you been living in the Bay? What are the challenges of being a small business owner here?

I was born in Venezuela and raised there, then moved to the U.S. when I was 12. I was in Florida for a while, and have now been in San Francisco for seven years. I would love to make it out in the Bay Area, even though it seems to be getting harder, but we’re trying to push to stay here.

A chef in a brown apron shows off two banana leaf-wrapped hallacas on a wooden cutting board.
Aguilera shows off the finished dish: two banana leaf–wrapped hallacas. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

I’d never heard of hallacas prior to this. Are there other Venezuelan places serving them around here?

As far as I know, I was one of the first to bring them to this area, as mentioned in the Eater SF article, but now there are more independent sellers doing it, too. There is an amazing chef who is doing Chinese Venezuelan food at Cantoo. That’s actually very common in Venezuela. I miss eating Venezuelan Chinese food. As a kid I was not very into it, but now I eat it way more, and it reminds me of home.

What other memories remind you of Venezuela, particularly during the holidays?

So there’s three dishes together: hallacas, pan de jamón, and our version of coquito, which is called ponche de crema and is made with Venezuelan rum. It’s like our eggnog. For the pan de jamón, it’s freshly baked rolls with homemade dough, filled with ham, bacon, olives and raisins with a panela glaze I make that is brushed on the inside and outside. It’s crispy. It’s sweet. It’s savory.

At the table, the family comes together for all of this. Everyone helps in preparing the meal, and you go up the ranks as you get older. You get different responsibilities in making the hallacas. First, it’s cleaning the leaves. After that, you put the masa on the leaves. The next person puts the guiso inside. Next, the little ingredients are added. Finally, the wrapping and tying the hallaca. That’s where you spill your family gossip and have some ponche or Venezuelan rum while listening to Venezuelan Christmas music. Our holiday music isn’t always promoted very much, but we listen to gaita.

The nice part is you can freeze and store the hallacas after, and they last for months and months. Usually, at the end of December, you have an extra 20 and eat them throughout the next year. I actually had a client the other day, and he sent me a picture of one he bought the year before. And he ate it. I was scared for him, but he said it still tasted good. I was like, I wouldn’t eat that, but it’s cool to know they last that long.

Arepas en Bici is currently taking orders from its annual holiday menu until Dec. 20. Check its calendar or reach out directly to learn about future events, catering and private dinners.


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