Monday, January 10, 2011

In Praise of Arepas

North Americans don't seem to know much about arepas.  If they did, arepas would be as popular as tacos--maybe even more so.  Arepas are everything Americans love:  they're convenient, they're adaptable, and they're fast.  Heck, they're even low-fat.

My corn arepas (no help from Noa!) baking on my griddle.

I first encountered arepas when they were featured in a Food Network program.  Shortly afterward, I went to Venezuela and had the genuine article.  I found that Bobby Flay over-complicated things in his TV show.  Venezuelans tend to put rice, beans, and some flavorful meat into the arepa, not stuff with exotic sauces.  On my next visit to Venezuela, I got some first-hand tips on making arepas from my friend Noa, but then, best of all, Noa came to the US to study with me and lived in our home for seven weeks.  During that time, she made tons of arepas.  Noa makes arepas the way generations of Venezuelan women have made them:  there's no recipe.  You put some grain in a bowl, maybe add a bit of salt and baking powder, then mix in enough hot water to make a smooth dough.  Probably you let it sit for a few minutes to absorb the water better, then you shape the dough into patties.  These get cooked on a dry griddle until they are nicely browned on the outside and cooked through.

It's simple food, and probably ancient.  The method is so simple and straightforward that it certainly doesn't require elaborate equipment.  It's easy to imagine cooking these on a stone next to the fire.

An arepa I made and am about to devour.

The part Americans would love is that you split the arepa (a little like a pita bread, though usually they don't form a hollow pocket of their own) and then stuff it, sandwich-like, with whatever you have on hand.  I'm partial to a little cured meat (salami is good), maybe some cheese, and some salad.  The arepas are especially good if you butter them before you stuff them.

In most of Venezuela, arepas are made from cornmeal.  They especially favor Harina P.A.N., a pre-cooked cornmeal that makes a very reliable dough.  But Noa quickly proved that almost any corn flour or meal would work just fine.  In Merida, where Noa is from, they make arepas from wheat flour.  I had tried a few there but didn't like them as well as the corn ones.  Or so I thought.  When Noa made some from scratch in my kitchen, they were heavenly.  Noa doesn't mind improvising:  she'll toss just about any combination of flour and cornmeal into the bowl.  We had some whole wheat flour around, and it made quite delicious arepas.

Noa left in mid-December, so for the last month or so I've been on my own in the arepa department.  Noa was always very kind about my arepas, no matter how misbegotten they looked.  I've gotten better, but they're still nothing like hers.  Even so, they're satisfactory, and they're a whole lot better than doing without them altogether!

One or two arepas, suitably stuffed, make a lovely lunch.  It's just enough, and it's very satisfying.  When I get better at making them and have a reliable method, I'll try to post some directions here.  But meanwhile, if you run across arepas someplace, try them right away.  You'll be glad you did.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "The world is so full of a number of things, / I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."  How true!  And so many of them are things to eat!  So many things, so little time.  And how many of them do we not even know about?  I had to wait more than fifty years to find out about arepas.  I have a half-century of arepa eating to make up for.  I'd better get busy...

As you sit down to eat, Venezuelans say, "Buen provecho."  It's more than "enjoy your meal" or "have a good appetite"; it's more like a wish that the food will sustain you well, that it will provide well for you.  So, "buen provecho."

1 comment:

  1. Oh-h! I'm so ready for your recipe. Keep "practicin'"!