My grandmother Ruth Gomes Casseres-Salas filled her 89 years of life with family, friends, community service, delicious cooking, travel and reading. She passed away peacefully in her sleep in September 2012. And though she hasn’t made her famous annual Christmas Ayakas (Hallacas, in Spanish) in recent years (never mind that we’re Jewish!) I miss her Ayakas more than ever before… because their reliable consistency seemed custom-made for “Gomes Casseres” taste buds. None of the Ayakas I’ve had this year come close! Admittedly, I took my grandmother’s delicious green gift-wrapped goodies for granted, never quite realizing just how much year-over-year ancestral love, labor and ingredient-tweaking was involved. So I set out to dig a little deeper this year.
We share our Ayaka tradition with Central American countries, other Caribbean islands, and even Brazil. My friend and anthropologist, Louis Philippe Römer, tells me that cornflour wrapped in (banana) leaf dates back to Pre-Columbian times. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of tamale-making (Meso-american versions of Ayakas) as early as the classic Maya period (250-900). Hieroglyphs depict Mayans preparing tamales for celebrations; classic Mayan pottery with hieroglyphic inscriptions were made especially for serving.
The Ayaka as we know it today is the “epitomy of cultural mixing. In it you find: the raisin and olive of the Romans and Greeks, the caper and almond (or cashew) from the Arabs, the beef / chicken / pork from the captains living in Castile, the corn and the banana leaf of the Indians” per prolific Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri.
Ayaka recipes vary by country. And within countries, by family. Within families, by member. Some prefer their Ayaka extra spicy, some extra sweet, etc.
Widely considered a special treat, I didn’t have to dig too much to find communal Ayaka-making traditions in Curaçao. My childhood boyfriend Danny Zeijdel’s maternal grandfather Oduber remembers making Ayakas as a little boy growing in Aruba. He introduced the tradition when he moved his family to Curaçao, but left much of the heavy lifting to his wife and 6 daughters. They would all set out to collect a long list of ingredients based on Danny’s great grandmothers’ recipe (chicken breast, tomatoes, onions, peppers, cumin, prunes, raisins, olives, pickled onions, cashews – not almonds! – per Aruban tradition etc.) They would also pop over to the Venezuelan Floating Market to pick up banana leaves, imported from Venezuela.
The whole family had to report for full-day mandatory Ayaka-making duty on December 15th. (Danny’s mother and aunts dreaded it when they were little girls as the day conflicted with an annual fair, celebrating the Netherlands Antilles Charter. But they grew to love it over the years and even introduced their own families to it.)
(Grand)mother and father, uncles and aunts, sisters, brothers and cousins were each assigned tasks. A few family members have to clean, dry and grease the banana leaves. Others have to make the chicken filling (chicken stew with krioyo spices). A few have to make the corn dough. Another fills the corn dough with chicken stew. Others add cashews, piccalilli, ham, olives and various other ingredients. Another puts the dough on the banana leaf, careful to face the “nerves” of the leaf down (to accomplish a smooth outer Ayaka shell once unwrapped). Another wraps an additional banana leaf around the assembled Ayaka to make the package “water tight”. Another ties kitchen string around the leaves, wrapping up the hard team work in a beautiful green present.
Danny remembers “manning” the final step of the assembly: the fire, heating the big pot of water, 200+ presents wrapped in banana leaves dancing to Christmas carols in Spanish, Dutch, Papiamentu and English.
Danny’s grandfather, father and uncles would joke, trash talk and drink around the fire. Friends and neighbors would drop by throughout the day to witness the laborious production and get a lucky first bite. Despite the long day of Ayaka assembly, the prior year’s Ayakas always seemed to taste better than the current year’s…