Around the world, Venezuela is known for four things: its oil supplies, its landscapes, its beautiful women and its amazing baseball players. But if you get a chance to visit this charismatic country you will soon find out that Venezuelans are very proud of something else: its arepas.
You can go out any night in Venezuela’s most popular cities—Caracas, Puerto La Cruz or Maracaibo—and find small restaurants called areperas, open until sunrise hours. Why? Because customers just keep coming and coming. One after another, the local folks order their arepas: “Una de pernil” (One of pork) or “Una de carne mechada con queso” (One of shredded beef with cheese) or, the favorite one, “Una reina pepiada” (It contains chopped chicken and avocado).
There are infinite fillings with which to concoct an arepa and, throughout Venezuela, arepas function as bread does in other countries: as a dish that can be eaten anytime, all over the place and with whatever ingredients you can come up with.
In the past, arepas were made of corn, and whoever was making them had to wait until the corn was very dry and then endure the strenuous process of hitting it inside a tree trunk—known across Latin America as a pilón—in order to remove its skin and rip apart the corn’s kernels. The kernels were then boiled until they reached a soft texture and placed over a large hollow stone, where the dough was prepared and condiments were added. It was the cook’s duty to give that same dough the round cake shape of the arepas and put them over the hot charcoals in order for them to bake.
Today, with pre-cooked white corn flour, frying casseroles, an oven and devices such as Oster’s Arepa Maker, making Venezuela’s most beloved food is an easy process that only takes minutes.
First, you must take care in preparing the arepa dough, and for that you need to:
Get two-and-a-half cups of warm water.
Get two cups of pre-cooked white corn flour (Harina P.A.N. or Harina Juana are Venezuela’s most renowned brands).
Get one teaspoon of salt.
Once all of the ingredients are set, pour the warm water into a large bowl, add the salt and, little by little, sprinkle the pre-cooked white corn flour into the mix. The trick is to play with the salted water and stir it sufficiently so that the dough becomes moist enough and the arepas do not crack when it is time to form them. Allow this mixture to rest for about five minutes and then start shaping the dough into round rolls or hamburger-like patties about three inches in diameter and a half-inch thick.
There are several ways to cook arepas: fry them, bake them, use the Arepa Maker or place them over a lightly greased skillet known as the budare, allowing the arepas to slowly cook until a crust forms on each side. Frying the arepas only takes a couple of minutes, while baking them takes around 25 or 30 minutes, but in both processes you should turn them once or twice on each side so that they cook well. The secret when frying them is that the arepas should be golden brown on each side and, when baking them, the arepas must sound hollow when tapped.
There are many types of arepas in Venezuela and in the Venezuelan communities of the United States. This superb corn-flavored dish is also part of the Colombian daily diet, and Colombians too have created many names and descriptions for the dozens of fillings that can be included with an arepa.
Among the Venezuelan varieties:
La reina pepiada: Contains a chicken and avocado salad and a touch of guasacaca, a sort of Venezuelan guacamole made out of avocados, olive oil, and a little bit of lemon juice.
La de queso de mano: Features a salty, compact and juicy mozzarella cheese.
La dominó: Includes a melted mix of black beans and shredded white cheese and it is named after the popu
Arepas with pork and black beans:
For the black beans: Three cups of black beans, five cups of cold water, two teaspoons of white vinegar, two chopped garlic cloves, and salt and pepper to taste.
For the pork: Four-and-a-half pounds of shoulder pork chops, half of a cup of water, a third of a cup of white vinegar, three chopped garlic cloves, half of a teaspoon of cumin seeds, adobe and dried oregano, and one teaspoon of salt and another one of butter.
For the arepas: Get the same components shown above.
First, soak the black beans in enough cold water to cover by two or three inches. Leave this for four hours and then drain. Mix the black beans’ ingredients in a new pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat and cook for about an hour or until the beans look tender.
Second, marinate the pork. Mince the garlic cloves and mash into a paste with the adobe and the salt. Put this mixture inside a ceramic baking dish and add the white vinegar, the cumin seeds and the dried oregano. Add the pork and the teaspoon of butter and rub it around the meat until melts with the marinade. Cover and leave at room temperature for about one hour.
After the hour has passed, preheat the oven to 330 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the water to the ceramic baking dish and cover it firmly with foil. Introduce it to the oven and let it cook for about two hours, or until you notice that the pork is tender.
My recommendation is to eat this wonderful dish with baked arepas, so, about 10 or 15 minutes before the pork is done, start making the arepa dough. Follow the instructions above and, if you want to give it a special touch, include half a cup of grated mozzarella cheese right before the dough has become moist enough.
Take the pork out of the oven and uncover it. Raise the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place the arepas onto a baking sheet inside the oven, remembering to turn them several times as they bake.
Finally, transfer the pork meat to a cutting board and try to remove the excess fat. Take the arepas out of the oven, tapping them to make sure they have cooked properly.
On a plate, serve two slices of pork, two arepas and a small portion of hot black beans.