It’s funny how the exact same food can be construed and enjoyed in such different ways.
Arepas, however, take it to an entirely different level. Catalyzed by a political split not long ago, arepas have come to mean two entirely different things in the Venezuelan and Colombian diet.
(NOTE: Want to save this recipe for later? You can take home a downloadable PDF version of this recipe by clicking here.)
Even when comparing apples to oranges, it’s still a debate very much going strong.
Arepas, The Timoto-Cuica and Gran Colombia
Before diving deeper into “the split,” we’ll first go back a little further and see where exactly arepas came from.
To do that, we’ll need to go back to the Pre-Columbian era of South America.
Prior to Christopher Columbus’s expeditions in 1492 that discovered the “New World” – and introduced significant European influence to the Americas – South America was home to a vast array of different civilizations and societies. Depending on where you look, the number of indigenous inhabitants ranged anywhere from 30 million to 100 million by the time Columbus first set sail.
Here we won’t re-hash the decimation of these South American indigenous peoples following the explorer’s arrival (you can find a good primer here), but the history of arepas is very closely linked to a smaller Andean population in what is now western Venezuela: the Timoto-Cuica.
Relative to the other indigenous Andean tribes, the Timoto-Cuica had developed some of the most advanced agricultural methods to improve crop growth. Through the use of tactics like field terracing (to avoid erosion), irrigation ditches and water storage, the Timoto-Cuica could very effectively grow a multitude of crops like corn, potato, cassava and cocoa. Couple these crops with the domestication of animals like turkeys, and the Timoto-Cuica developed a fairly diverse diet.
One of the popular staples in the Timoto-Cuica diet was the erepa, an unleavened cake made from dried and ground corn. And while the concept of unleavened cakes like this were not uncommon for other Amerindian groups – nearby Arawaks (whom we saw in Jamaica) made a similar unleavened cake called casabe – the Timoto-Cuica erepa uniquely used corn where others used cassava.
Alas, the onset of the Columbian era drove the Timoto-Cuica to a tragic extinction, but their legacy remains strong in arepas… even though times of fierce political turmoil.
Fracturing from Gran Colombia
By the mid-16th century, the Europeans had arrived and conquered – both politically and economically – much of the South American landscape.
Save for a brief stint of German occupation, the Spaniards were the driving colonizing force in the northern parts of South America. For Venezuela in particular, the Spanish cultivated its lands and built up a thriving cocoa industry that brought the area to prominence. Coupled with an easily accessible port and contact with both European and Caribbean traders, the city of Caracas grew into an intellectual and commercial hub for the entire region.
Nevertheless, the Venezuelans strongly sought independence from the Spanish Empire. The early 19th century brought a turn of luck in this respect, as the Spanish Crown was badly weakened by the Napoleonic wars being fought back in Europe.
The Venezuelan provinces capitalized on the opportunity and in 1811 declared independence from Spain. It would take a decade and several failed Venezuelan Republics (and corresponding Spanish reconquests), but eventually Simon Bolivar – the lead commander in the independence movement – won in battle at New Granada and established the sovereign state of Gran Colombia.
At its outset, Gran Colombia was a massive newly sovereign territory. While Gran Colombia itself only lasted ~15 years, at its peak it encompassed what is now the modern states of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Guyana, parts of Brazil, northern Peru, and of course Venezuela.
The political situation of Gran Colombia worsened after the initial euphoria, as clashing groups of federalists and separatists had differing visions on the future for the region. Despite Bolivar’s best efforts (including naming himself dictator) to keep the union alive, Gran Colombia officially dissolved in 1831 as Venezuela and Ecuador split and became independent states.
This political rupture proved to have a huge effect on the trajectory of arepas, which now became popular in both Venezuela and modern day Colombia in entirely different ways.
Colombian vs Venezuelan Arepas
Most (including us) will immediately associate arepas as a typically Venezuelan snack, but we’d only be half right.
Stemming from the time of early 15th century occupation, the Spanish adopted the Timoto-Cuican erepas, and it quickly became ubiquitous throughout the region. Following the fracturing of Gran Colombia, arepas grew and flourished in two countries in particular: Venezuela and Colombia.
The two versions of arepas have very little in common with one another these days. Colombian arepas tend to be thinner and flatter, and their accompaniments often top the arepa to create more of an open-faced sandwich or tostada type of dish. Most often the arepas are then eaten as a breakfast food in Colombia.
The Venezuelan versions, on the other hand, are completely different. They’re made to be shorter, thicker and often stuffed with various different and colorful ingredients like a traditional sandwich. Depending on how these arepas are prepared – sometimes they’re fried, other times they’re grilled – they are sometimes enjoyed most after a fun night on the town.
While we didn’t paint the town red ourselves before this recipe, we loved the color and variety of arepas rellenas (stuffed arepas) so much that we had to pursue further.
About the Recipe
For the actual corn cake itself, there’s very little that goes into creating the dough. Traditionally, you would want to grind dried corn down into a rough, not-so-fine meal, but nowadays you can use granulated cornmeal or masarepa flour to make your arepas.
The beauty of the arepa is how flexible and versatile it is. You can make your dough with as little as added water and salt, or you can even sneak small bites of flavor like fresh herbs if you like. It’s completely up to you.
After mixing and mashing your dough until it becomes thick and sticky, you’ll take a portion of your dough in your hand and roll it into a ball.
Once you have a nicely formed ball, you’ll want to press it down on a flat surface with even pressure to help it flatten into more of an ovular disc shaped. You’ll want to be careful here, though, since the outer edges of your disc might want to crack. Don’t let them.
After you’ve gotten all your discs prepared, you can do all sorts of things to your arepa. You can grill them, sear them, bake them, deep fry them… or a combination of any of the above! It’s completely up to you, but you’ll want to budget at least a good 10-15 minutes of cooking time.
As you’re cooking, you can prepare your various toppings and sauces for your arepas. One sauce in particular we can suggest is guasacaca, or a zestier, tangier Venezuelan version of guacamole. To make it, simply blend ingredients like avocado, onion, lime juice and jalapeno (and more if you’d like) together until smooth and almost runny.
With your arepas done, take them out of the oven and cut them open. Stuff them with as many fillings as you’d like, drizzle a nice helping of sauce on top, and enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
It’s clear that people take pride in making great arepas. For us, we grew partial to one site in particular with their approach to arepas and their walkthrough of the process, which is why it’s our original reference recipe for today.
While we didn’t make any major adjustments to the key ingredients in their arepas, we did make some additions. To give the arepa itself some added flavor, we added chili powder, scallions and finely chopped cilantro into the mix. To add a bit of a crunch to the bite, we added in some freshly cut corn from the cob. Keep in mind, though, that all these ingredients are totally optional.
We added guasacaca to the root recipe even though it’s not part of the arepas themselves simply because we found it goes so well with any filling ingredient. You’ll notice, however, that we didn’t mention any ingredients for the filling. If we did, the recipe would be never-ending because the possibilities for arepas are limitless, but do keep in mind that you’ll need some tasty assortment of colorful fillings for true arepas rallenas.
Otherwise, the arepas themselves are so incredibly straightforward, and they help provide a meal experience that is enjoyable at any time… whether you’ve just come home from a party or not.
What would you fill in your arepas? Comment below!
Food plated and styled by Phil Roepers