Nicaraguan American Ramon Uriel Gutierrez Mejia always looks forward to the holiday season, but not for gifts and celebration.
Instead, his anticipation is for a traditional Nicaraguan dish: stuffed hen.
“ Gallina rellena means tradition,” said Mejia, whose parents arrived in the United States in 1986. “It means keeping my grandmother’s memory alive. It brings the family together. We get to enjoy good food together as a family.”
Several Hispanic cultures have signature traditional dishes for Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. For example, many Cuban Americans enjoy roasted pig, cooked using a caja china, a type of roasting box.
Many Nicaraguans, however, feast on gallina rellena.
In Sweetwater, where Mejia and his mother, Martha Mejia, operate Madroño Restaurant, the staff has over 100 orders from Nicaraguan Americans who will pick up the dish on Dec. 24. Martha learned of the recipe from her late mother, Maria Mejia Zeledon.
“I am teaching it to my kids and hoping my grandchildren will learn to carry it on in the next generation,” she said.
In areas with concentrations of Nicaraguans, such as Hialeah, Sweetwater and Little Havana, some stores advertise the holiday favorite. The dish, which typically sells for about $65, usually includes a stuffed hen served with rice, garlic toast and salad.
What sets the dish apart is the relleno, which translates to stuffing. There are two kinds of stuffing in Nicaragua: one originating from the northern part of the country and the other from the southern area, Ramon said.
Recipes can vary, depending on the household. Stuffing from the north is like a sandwich paste. Southern stuffing, which is more common in South Florida, is made with pork, carrots, capers, raisins, ketchup, mustard, onions, olives and potatos, Ramon said. Once mixed, it is stuffed inside the hen and placed in the oven. The relleno gives the hen its flavor.
“The hen is similar to a chicken in size, but the meat is similar to turkey,” said Ramon. “The meat is darker, dryer and rough.”
It takes about eight hours to bake the hen.
Xiomara Faenz arrived to the United States in 1979, and gallina rellena is present every Christmas Eve at her household.
“It makes me think of our roots,” she said of the meal. “We are always thinking of our land and remembering it.”
Also, nacatamal, which is typically pork, rice, capers, potatoes, onions and tomatoes wrapped in a plantain-leaf pillow, is served on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
For dessert, there is pio quinto, which is cake drenched in rum, topped with custard and dusted with cinnamon.
“This is a way to maintain the tradition,” Ramon said. “Everyone knows Christmas Eve is gallina day.”