Fed up of toast and marmalade or cereal for breakfast? Then food writer Nicola Miller’s arepas are going to have you setting your alarm and excitedly jumping out of bed with anticipation
I have been watching Las Crónicas del Taco on Netflix, a show directed by Carlos Pérez Osorio. It made me wonder what a similar show based on the arepa, a little maize cake whose territory ranges across the northern parts of South America (specifically Colombia and Venezuela), would be like.
The story of the arepa is really the story of corn. Its name derives from the word ‘erepa’, a Cumanagoto word for corn (maize/maíz) and a crop that has its origins in pre-Columbian times. Indigenous people would soak, de-husk and dry kernels of maize and grind them into flour before mixing with water to make these cakes which could be griddled, grilled or baked and eaten plain, topped with whatever they had to hand, or split and stuffed. Corn was –and is – considered a gift of the gods, a life-sustaining foodstuff (and the foundation of the indigenous ‘three sisters’ crop planting system), whose stalks reach towards the heavens bearing tessellated cobs in a multiplicity of hues, including gold as bright as the rays of the sun. Women took charge of its preparation which was hard work but also an act of grace, worship and artistic creation.
So here we have an ancient tradition which has managed to prevail, although a dreadful political situation in Venezuela has caused its citizens to run short of the pre-cooked maize meal they use to prepare their arepas. Ironically, this has led to the arepa becoming more familiar to those of us not from South America as Venezuelan people flee the regime to set up home as diaspora, and to cook, eat and sell their own cuisine. (If you want to read more on this, npr.org has an article by Alejandro Puyana that goes into more detail). Without corn there is no country, the Mexicans say, and I suspect Venezuelans would agree with this.
There are over 60 varieties of arepa in Colombia and Venezuela alone. Visit Colombia’s Caribbean coast and you will eat them bathed in garlic water and fried until crispy before being filled with egg. The pancake-like Arepa de Choclo from the southwest is made from sweetcorn and stuffed with cheese whilst markets everywhere sell tiny arepitas, eaten as street snacks. Travel to Venezuela and you will encounter arepas filled with shrimp or carne mechada (shredded meat) and the famous Arepa de Dominó, which is split and filled with black beans. They even named an arepa after Susana Duijm, winner of the Miss World pageant in 1955. Or visit Zulia in Venezuela’s northwest for the Tumbarrancho which is filled with mortadella, before being dipped in flour and egg and fried then served with cheese, greens and tomato sauce. Like the corn tortilla, the flavour and scent of fresh arepas remind me of the earth and the sun, of hot bedrock and clay vessels, and the salt and sweetness of corn before its sugars have turned to starch. They are elemental.
I hope I can be forgiven for this recipe which melds a Venezuela-influenced filling with a Colombian style arepa, a version of the butter-enriched Arepa Boyacense from Boyacá in the mountainous east of the country. Although these arepas are traditionally made with milk curds I do not have these to hand so instead, I have worked some milk into the dough. They are served with milk and egg soup for breakfast, but I have chosen to split and fill them with black beans (known as ‘caviar criollo’), bacon and scrambled egg. I have assumed you know how to cook these so have given timings only. The beans I would usually cook from dried but here I have used canned for ease of time. If I am having these arepas for breakfast, I tend to make the beans and arepa dough the night before. Wrap the dough tightly in clingfilm and chill if you do this.
BREAKFAST AREPAS (serves four heartily, two apiece)
250g yellow masarepa (precooked cornmeal) Look for the P.A.N brand of masarepa which I buy from Faraway Foods in Bury St Edmunds, but it is easily available online and from international food stores.
300-350ml water (warm)
30ml full-fat milk
4 tbsp butter (melted)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp plain flour
¼ tsp caster sugar
Mix the masarepa, flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Pour in the butter and mix, then slowly add the milk and water; you may not need all the water so do not pour it all in at once. Knead the dough until it comes together in a raggedy mass. This mixture will feel wet at first but the masarepa will slowly absorb excess fluid. Now cover the dough and allow it to rest for ten minutes.
The dough should feel smooth and silky but not too sticky. If it feels too dry (i.e. it does not come together smoothly when you gather it into a ball), add a little more water. It’ll become pliable and Play-doh like as you knead it.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead it for two minutes before leaving it to rest, covered with cling film, for another five minutes. If it feels dry, dampen your hands under the tap before separating the dough into eight pieces and rolling each one into a ball before flattening each ball into a round disc, around 3cms thick and 8cms in diameter.
You will probably find that the arepas develop little cracks around their edges as you form them. Use dampened fingers to smooth them out. The odd crack really does not matter though.
Grease the surface of a large heavy frying pan or skillet with vegetable oil and heat over a medium heat. Wipe off any excess oil with kitchen roll.
Fry the arepas in batches, making sure you turn the heat down to medium-low once they are in and cook until they are light brown on both sides. This can take up to ten minutes per batch. You are aiming to crisp the outsides whilst the centres steam into light, fluffy goodness. Keep them warm until you are ready to plate up then split them with a serrated knife, fill and eat.
1½ tbsp vegetable oil
1 large red onion, chopped into dice
1 red pepper, chopped into dice
½ tsp soft brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp chile powder
1 bay leaf
200 ml water
2 400g cans black beans in unsalted water, undrained
1 tsp cider vinegar
Heat oil in a large heavy pan over medium heat and then add the onion and red pepper and cook until tender (about 30 mins), giving the odd stir to stop it catching. Add the garlic, salt, sugar, black pepper, chile powder, a bay leaf and the cumin, stir and continue to cook for two minutes.
Now add the water and the beans, turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Once they are boiling, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes; stirring from time to time. The beans will thicken; add more water if they are too thick. Remove from heat, fish out the bay leaf and stir in the vinegar before serving.
2 rashers of streaky bacon and 1 serving of scrambled eggs per arepa. Prepare these while the arepas are frying.
Chopped coriander to garnish.
Split the arepa and dollop a tablespoon of beans onto the bottom layer. Top with the rashers of bacon and then the egg. Garnish with chopped coriander and sprinkle with hot sauce if you have a mind to.
Follow Nicola @millerstale