Written by Diana Chiodi
My culinary guard was put to the test one day walking through a street fair somewhere downtown. I was not expecting to find anything more than the usual fried dough and chicken kabobs, until I came across a giant sign that read “Arepas”. The word transported me back to my grandmother’s kitchen where I would watch her grill the cornpatties on the stove and prepare my favorite breakfast with a side of fresh white cheese and churned butter. Could it be? In hindsight, I should have been more skeptical but my desire to believe it was possible soon extinguished the doubt.
My mouth watered as I thought of biting into one, my hands rushing for my wallet before I had even crossed the street. But much to my chagrin my hopes were vanished as soon as I saw the so-called corn cakes sizzling on the griddle. These were far from the golden brown patties that I remembered. They were ugly yellow mounds with cheese oozing out the sides. I was turned off by these cheap imitations and somewhat insulted by the gall of the vendor to consider these unrecognizable grease patties as arepas. A sense of urgency to warn all onlookers rushed through me. “Stop!” I wanted to shout, “These are not arepas!” Instead, I turned around away from the giant yellow banners and their false advertisement, lamenting my experience to no one in particular and yet determined to set the record straight one way or another.
The traditional bread of Colombia and Venezuela, the arepa (pronounced ah-reh-pah)dates back to pre-Columbian times with the Native Americans. In those days, to make arepas required a series of steps which started by removing the grains from dried corncobs and then boiling and grinding the metate until a dough was formed. The dough was then formed in round patties that were then cooked over the fire. According to historians, the name arepa is derived from the word erepa, which Spanish colonists used to describe food or bread that was cooked on the round griddles, or aripos, that the natives used to cook.
Today, the corn flour is conveniently found precooked, so making an arepa is a lot easier than back in the day. Depending on the country – Colombia or Venezuela – the arepa takes a particular shape. In Colombia, it is about 6 inches in diameter and about ¼” thick. In Venezuela, it is smaller – about half the size but three times thicker than its Colombian cousin. This version is easier to slice open and stuff with any filling of choice. Additionally, the corn mixtures can vary from yellow or white. Cooking methods also vary depending on the cook’s preference. Regardless of its size, cooking method or accoutrement, however, the arepa is a delicious alternative to bread. It can be the perfect snack or fulfilling meal, and it is well suited for anyone looking for a satisfying breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The basic recipe for an arepa is simple. The following one results in a flatter arepa, much like the Colombian version, but you can increase the ratios to yield more dough, and instead of completely flattening out the balls, you make them thicker for stuffing (keep in mind though that these will take longer to cook).
1/3 cup precooked white cornmeal
1/3 cup warm water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon butter for cooking
1. Combine all ingredients and gradually knead with your hands until a soft yet firm dough forms.
2. Divide the dough into four balls. Take a ball of dough and gradually start flattening it out until it is about ¼” thick, all the while maintaining a round shape. (This takes some skill and patience since overworking the dough may cause it to crack or dry out, so an alternative would be to place the ball of dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and with a heavy pan, flatten it to the desired thickness).
3. Melt the butter in a pan set over medium heat. Place the arepas and cook for about 2 minutes on each side until they have a golden color.
Once the arepas are done, you can let your culinary imagination run wild and pair them with either a sweet or savory topping. Of course, if you prefer to skip the recipe and have it done for you, you can visit Caracas Arepa Bar (www.caracasarepabar.com). Offering two locations, (one on the lower east side and a newer, larger one in Brooklyn), Chef Ilse and her team will delight you with the arepa combinations available from her menu. After one bite, these authentic Venezuelan arepas will turn any amateur into an arepa aficionado and teach them to distinguish the true from the fake!