Before us anglos brought big love for wheat to the Americas, corn was the undisputed king of the cereals, (the grass family grains like wheat, corn, rice, millet, rye and a raft of others.) So it may surprise Norte Americanos to learn that corn still rules. While American wheat cultivation is less than 8% of world production, we grow slightly over 37% of the world’s corn – Far more than than all of South America. When it comes to cooking delicious things with corn however, (and despite our contributions of corn bread and hush puppies), Mexico and South America got it all over us for the tastiest goods – From tortillas and tamales to gorditas and pupusas, there’s a bunch of wonderful stuff down there. Today, we’ll take a look at arepas, the signature corn cake of Columbia and Venezuela.
Arepas are plump little corn cakes that might be baked, fried, grilled, steamed, or boiled. They’re eaten plain or loaded with various fillings, depending on which meal they’re accompanying – Anything from beans to eggs and shrimp. They’re an old food, certainly pre-Spanish invasion – Archeologists have found the tools used to make them all over Columbia and Venezuela. The name Arepa most likely derived from the Caracas word erepa, meaning maize (corn). Their antiquity and tastiness makes them vitally important to the cuisines of both countries, and there’s serious rivalry as to where they might have originated. It’s a sad fact that, for the last few years, Venezuelans have been largely denied this staple of their diet due to the country’s serious economic woes.
Ridiculously simple in ingredients and construction, arepas are nothing more than corn flour, salt, a little oil, and water, mixed by hand and then cooked – That’s it. The only caveat is the kind of corn flour used. Trust me when I tell you that corn meal or plain old masa will not work. What you need is called masarepa, (or masa de arepa, harina precocida, or masa al instante). This is precooked corn flour, meant to make a delicious handful of regional dishes like arepas, hallacas, bollos, tamales, empanadas and chicha. As such, you’ll find it predominantly from makers in Columbia and Venezuela. Think of it like Wondra flour and you get the picture.
Traditional arepa flour was prepared by lengthy soaking of dried corn. The resulting mash was then pounded to remove the germ and shell. That stuff was subsequently boiled, ground finer, and made into arepas. The one major change in arepa making in the modern age is the industrialization of that whole process, (thank the Corn Gods). Masarepa is what you absolutely need to make these guys, and it’s widely available from your local Latin food store, or online. The brands Harina PAN, Goya, and Harina Juana all come from Venezuela, and Areparina from Columbia. Arepas are freakin’ seriously delicious, and the flour is not pricy – You’ll want this stuff in your pantry.
As mentioned, there are a bunch of ways these guys are made, but I’ll steer you to a dual process of frying and baking that’ll give you delicious, consistent results with a minimum of fuss. As you’ll see, the entire construction process is done by hand, as it’s always been done, and should be.
Quite a few online recipes recommend mixing white and yellow masarepa, which folks seem to feel provides a lighter texture and a more pleasant taste profile, but frankly, I’m not buying the claims – It appears almost all that sentiment stems from one restaurant that makes great deep fried arepas and shared their recipe – I don’t deep fry, and I like yellow just fine, so that’s what I use – you do what floats your boat. Our recipe isn’t really Venezuelan or Columbian, (although it leans toward the latter, which in general has far less fat than the former), but it will make a tasty arepa simply and quickly. You can research the traditional methods of each country on your own and explore later.
Arepas de UrbanMonique – Makes 6-8
2 Cups Water (warm to the touch, about 90° F)
2 Cups Yellow Masarepa
3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 packed teaspoon Salt
Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is fully preheated before you load arepas into it.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, oil, and salt, and whisk to thoroughly dissolve the salt.
Add about 1/8 cup of masarepa to the salt and water and stir it in by hand – You’ll clearly feel the masarepa incorporate.
Continue gradually adding masarepa and kneading – When you get to roughly half way, the dough will morph from very liquid to something more substantial – this is when you want to slow down and allow the masarepa to fully absorb water. Continue until you’ve got almost or all the masarepa in the mix – you want a dough that feels quite moist, almost wet, but is easy to work with and will not stick to your bare hands. If your dough feels dry, add a little water and work it into the mix – And vice versa for adding more masarepa if it’s too wet. When the dough is right, it should not feel grainy, and it will ball up nicely.
Once you’ve reached that consistency, cover the bowl with a clean, dry kitchen towel and let it rest for 5 minutes.
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, with 2 ounces or so of avocado oil therein.
After the rest, grab a handful of dough and roll it into a ball, then use your palms to form it into a patty roughly 1/2” and about 4” in diameter. Keep forming arepas until you’re out of dough.
When the skillet and oil are heated, add two or three arepas and fry them until they form a nice, golden crust – About 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Set the fried arepas on the lined baking sheet and slide them into the oven.
Bake for 12 – 15 minutes, until the arepas have risen slightly, and are a bit darker. When you think they’re done, slide the rack out and tap one in the center – If they sound kind of hollow, they’re done – I set my timer for 10 minutes to check, then let them go a bit longer as needed.
Transfer arepas to a cooling rack and let them rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing and going wild.
Almost anything is fair game for toppings, making arepas great for clearing out the fridge – Scrambled eggs, diced ham, pork, chicken, beans, cheese, tomato, onion, chiles, avocado, whatever floats your boat. For vegetarian and vegan folk, jack fruit done up with taco seasoning makes a killer meat substitute. that said, try one hot, with nothing at all, or maybe just a little butter. There’s a pure corn taste, a very satisfying chew, that really hits home.
If you have a good Latin market nearby, look for queso guayanes, paisa, or duro – If those aren’t available, queso cotija or fresco will work just fine.
If you want to prepare arepas and cook them later, they can hang in the fridge for a day or two and be OK – More than that and they’ll dry out. They can be frozen, uncooked, for up to 3 months as well.