My first experience with arepas was on a coffee farm in rural El Salvador. It was white corn, ground by hand, cooked on an open fire and served with some local soft cheese. My hand groped for my water bottle as I tried to down this rather dry ”delicacy” without insulting my hosts.
Fast forward to the coastal highway between Barranquilla and Cartagena. Early in the morning my hosts on this journey pulled over at a roadside stand – make that wooden shack that had no sign of any sanitary or hygienic facility anywhere in sight. They insisted that I try the local specialty of ”arepa con huevo” which consists of a raw egg inserted into a yellow corn arepa and then deep fried. All that was running through my mind was, ” I have no idea when or where the vendor last washed their hands but at least the deep frying will kill any pathogens they might be sharing with me”. Besides being a bit greasy to my surprise it was quite tasty.
Arepas come in all shapes and sizes, even at times in the form of the famous Disney mouse. Traditionally it is a flat, round patty made of yellow or white corn meal without yeast. As with my first arepas in El Salvador they can be made by hand in a long and arduous process or it is now possible to buy the flour ready to prepare. You can bake them, broil them, fry them or toast them, grilled or steamed, they are really wholesome.
In the grocery stories you can find a wide variety ready to heat. There is small, silver dollar sized version. Some are plain – ”arepa simple” and can be served with soup. Others of similar size are filled with cheese and when served at breakfast with butter and marmalade, they are delicious. Arepas made from yucca are my favourite. The Choclo version is prepared with sweet corn. At times they are thick and sweet and can easily substitute for a pancake breakfast. Some arepas are quite flat and others may be upwards of 3/4” thick and dripping with cheese. Often you will find vendors on the street corner selling this variety.
When you are ready to serve them, be certain that they are warmed through and through. If they are not properly heated, they can be unappealing and this may leave you with the same impression I had with my first experience. A toaster will not do the job. Either warm them on the grill or in the oven. A frying pan with a little bit of butter or oil so they don’t stick also works well.
There are some restaurants that specialize in arepas. They can be served with virtually any kind of topping, sliced chicken with a mushrooms sauce, pulled pork or piled high with shrimp, just to suggest a few.
As a wheat free, gluten free eater arepas changed my diet. Driving past a ”pizza joint” use to be torture. Now I take a yucca arepa, smother it with pizza sauce, add pepperonis, sliced tomatoes, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese and cook it slowly on the stop top or grill it in the oven – mmm delicious !
Although a bread substitute made with corn was a typical foodstuff for the indigenous people in North America, this style of cornmeal preparation is considered to be a traditional food in Venezuela and Colombia.
Arepas can be a delightful new addition to your diet. Don’t just try one!