In an earlier post, I talked about the one thing I miss the most from my days in Miami -- authentic arepas (ah-RAY-pas). I had a neighbor who was from Venezuela. And even though she couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Spanish, we became very dear friends, and every Sunday morning she would send a fresh, warm batch of these delights to my house. In fact, one of the popular cafes in town was an areparia where you could get fresh arepas at any time of the day stuffed with the fillings of your choosing. Yum yum.
Arepa was the corn bread of the native American nation that lived in the northern Andean mountains of Venezuela. They learned how to grow maize from the Quechuas (Peru) and Mayas (Mexico) where the crop was originally from. With the colonization process this corn bread made from maize was widely spread throughout the country and into Colombia.
Both the Colombians and Venezuelans claim the arepa as a traditional national food, with a long tradition in both countries. To me, however, the arepa will always signify the best of Venezuela.
An arepa is a flat cornmeal patty that is traditionally boiled in water, baked in the oven or fried in hot oil. Most often, they are browned on the outside by cooking briefly on a hot griddle and then place in a hot oven. In fact, both Oster and Black & Decker sell an appliance called the Tosti-arepa -- an electric arepa maker. (Note to self: Call both companies and see if I can buy one!)
In Eastern Venezuela, arepas are generally 3 to 5 inches in diameter and approximately 1/2 inch thick. In the Andean West where the arepa originates from, you will find flat arepas just a bit smaller than their Eastern counterparts that are only 1/4 inch or less in thickness.
Arepas are eaten warm with butter as a snack, or split in half and filled with cheese, meats or other fillings.
1 cup masa harina (can substitute white cornmeal -- use yellow cornmeal only in a pinch)
1 cup warm water
Dash of salt
1 tsp cooking oil
(See sources at end of post for where to purchase the necessary products.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and gradually add the warm water and oil, mixing to form a stiff dough. Let rest for 5 minutes.
Knead the dough for a couple of minutes. Take a small amount of the dough and form into flat, round cakes approximately 3" to 4" in diameter and approximately 1/2" to 3/4" thick. shape and press around the edges to make it even and smooth. Continue making these patties until the dough is used up.
Grease a heavy skillet or griddle and set over low heat. When the surface is hot, place the patties, one or two at a time, on the griddle to brown on both sides, approximately 3 to 4 minutes.
Remove from the griddle. Drain on paper towels. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes.
To serve, split the arepa like a hamburger bun. Discard some of the steaming meal that is still soft in the middle. Fill with choice of filling, close the arepa and serve immediately.
Note: Although carne mechada is one of my favorite fillings, queso de mano (a Venezuelan flatlands cousin of mozzerella) is at the top of my list. I split the arepa, put a good helping of the cheese in the middle and then return the whole thing to the griddle over low heat until the cheese melts. If you can't find the queso de mano, substitute with mozzerella.
Harina P.A.N., introduced by Empresas Polar in the 1960's, is arguably the most widely used masa harina in Venezuela. It is so commonly used that, like Kleenex, its name has become synonymous with its product. To find a store near you where you can purchase or to find a site online, visit the Harina PAN Store Locator Map.
You should be able to find other brands of masa harina along with other flour and cornmeal products in large grocery stores or in their international section. It should also be easily found in Mexican-American markets. Both white cornmeal and masa harina can be purchased online at the Quaker Oats Online Store.
The electric arepa-maker can be found at Oster's Online Store for $49.99. You can purchase an arepera (stovetop arepa pan) at Goodman's Online Store for $19.99.
The only place I can find quality queso de mano in the United States is at La Casa de Pedro in Watertown, Massachusetts. The owner, Pedro Alarcón, makes his own. I'm not sure if you can purchase it from him, but it's worth a try! You might want to try local Venezuelan restaurants and purchase from them.