When I was a teenager, my mother’s father, Alex, married a woman named Carmen and moved to his new wife’s hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. My family went to visit them, and Grandpa Alex, a Jewish New Yorker, had clearly found his niche. He took us all over the city on foot–in his late 70s, he was in much better shape than any of his descendants–and to all sorts of Venezuelan restaurants. This was before South American all-you-can-eat beef restaurants became ubiquitous in the US, and what I remember best were the churrascarias–and the arepas.
Arepas are Venezuela’s daily bread. We ate breakfast every day at a place called Doña Arepota, which loosely translates as “she of the big arepas.” (I find this just as funny now as when I was sixteen.) I’d order a dish called, in Spanish, something like “cowboy eggs”: fried eggs with spiced beef braised until falling apart, served with arepas. The puck-shaped corn cakes were pan-fried and then baked. Made from parcooked corn flour, they had a crusty exterior and moist, doughy interior. We each ate several arepas per day.
Not long after we returned from Venezuela, Grandpa Alex died. I’ve never been back to Caracas, and I figured arepas would have to stay a blurry memory. Then I picked up the new Cook’s Illustrated book, The Best International Recipe, and there they were. The corn flour (masarepa) was easy to find at a Latin grocery in downtown Seattle, and I decided to make arepas for Christmas lunch at my parents’ house. They have few ingredients (corn flour, salt, baking powder, water) and are simple to form. I made two fillings: diced chicken thighs with lime juice, cheese, scallions, and cilantro, and braised flank steak with tomatoes and onions, a simplified ropa vieja.
The arepas were a hit–crunchy and hot, with piquant fillings that helped to counteract the effects of too much Christmas candy. Iris wanted hers with chicken and lots of lime juice. My younger brothers (who were twelve when we went to Venezuela and are now, absurdly, twenty-seven) noted that my arepas were smaller than what we had in Caracas. I can explain that. I’m Don Arepita.