The arepa guy

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.

10 thoughts on “The arepa guy

  1. ctate

    Hey, neat! These sound similar to a key ingredient in something I had at Tacubaya recently, a (scrumptious) dish called “sope de chorizo & papas.” It looks like traditional sope are not as substantial as you make the arepas sound, but hey, fried corn cakes.

    Description from the Tacubaya menu: “crispy masa cake topped with black beans, Mexican sausage and potatoes, garnished with crema, queso cotija and pickled vegetables”

  2. great

    How hot is the “chorizo” sausage? Would you recommend it for Grandpa Marvin to cook? If so, do you have a recipe we can use?

  3. ctate

    Chorizo can range from not-particularly-hot to very-hot. Spanish-style chorizi is generally milder than Mexican, if I recall correctly — mamster, am I right on this?

    I’d say ask your butcher, maybe try various sources or brands until you find one that is not too spicy for you. Of course, you also just use the amount of it appropriate to your tastes — a little chorizo and a lot more beans and potato won’t be so very spicy overall.

  4. ctate

    (“chorizi” there was just a typo for “chorizo”, by the way, not an intentional different spelling! If you Google around I’m sure you can find lots of sope recipes, too.)

  5. mamster Post author

    Yes, Mexican chorizo, which is what would go on a sope, is generally pretty spicy. You can make it at home, but it’s best to buy it at a Mexican carniceria that makes it fresh. I’ve been pretty disappointed with supermarket brands.

  6. Chris

    Thanks for reminding me about these! JuanJo and Alicia made them once and I loved them. Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World also has a recipe, which I’m now inspired to try. It’s a little different, without baking powder and with corn kernels. Also, he starts by putting regular cornmeal in the blender, I guess assuming not everyone can get masarepa.

  7. mamster Post author

    Chris, today I was at Broadway QFC and they not only had masarepa, they had your choice of white or yellow. For $3.

  8. Ross

    One of my few memories from high school Spanish class is the commercials from the Spanish soap opera we watched a few episodes of. One of them was for “Doña Arepa”, which I gather was a brand of corn flour. Its commercial proclaimed it “El major harina para arepas en casa”. Clearly, they did not know about Doña Arepota.

    (The other commercial I recall strongly was for some sit com called “El Chavo”. That commercial has for a long time influenced my mental image of the spanish language as one oriented toward extreme straightforwardness. Whereas an American commercial would be all clever about how zany the show was, this commercial said, simply, in Spanish, “Watch it. It’s very funny.”)

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