Arepas Latin America

Arepas and Corn: Staple Foods in Latin America

Arepas and Corn: Staple Foods in Latin America

Pancakes, muffins, tortillas, crepes, burger buns… it is almost like we have a natural disposition—and perhaps preference—for round, doughy foods. I say that is definitely the case with arepas as well, one of Colombia and Venezuela’s top foods. What are they?

Arepas are round-shaped corn cakes. They are commonly made from white corn masa (the same masa used for making corn tortillas) and are browned on both sides. Arepas are made for breakfast, lunch, dinner, as a snack or side dish, and can be easily made at home or found in food stands around Colombia and Venezuela.

Together with cheese, meat and basically any other ingredient, they can make a delicious dish for any occasion. Let us then examine where they come from and how they are made and other similar foods that you will find across Latin America.

To understand why arepas are an essential item in Colombian and Venezuelan gastronomy, we must understand its history and main ingredient: corn masa. Although it grows in many parts of the world, corn (or maize) has been a staple crop of tropical regions for a long time.

This is partly due to the fact that it can grow all year in warm climates. In fact, scientists believe that it originated in what is now Mexico more than 10,000 years ago through a process of selective breeding: ancient farmers saved the best corn kernels (or seeds) for the next harvest until they were able to grow what we now know as the modern corn cobs.

 

Mexican Corn, maize dried blue corn cobs on Mexican hands in Mexico. Image Credit: iStock.

 

But unlike wheat, which only needs to be “dehulled” (that is, to remove the flaky outer shell) and ground to be turned into flour, corn generally undergoes a more rigorous process. Dried corn kernels cannot simply be ground and turned into a dough.

After they are removed from the cob, dried kernels are cooked until they have puffed up and softened. Central Americans take it a step further by cooking kernels in an alkaline solution to make them easier to peel and more nutritious (a process known as nixtamalization).

The soft grains are then ground into a dough (called masa) that can be used for making tortillas, tamales and, of course, arepas. For cooking, the usual options include grilling, frying and searing plus baking. Nowadays, arepas are an easy recipe to make at home: They can be made with pre-cooked corn flour and do not require any special soaking or grinding. You can even find them frozen at certain supermarkets!

Corn is used for many typical dishes of Latin America, and even though foods of the “T” diet (tortillas, tacos, tamales) are commonly associated with Mexico, the origin of arepas has been the subject of a timeless—yet friendly—debate between Colombia and Venezuela.

The word arepa comes from the word erepa (meaning “corn cake”) in the Cumanagoto language, spoken by the Pre-Columbian people (of the same name) that lived in what is now Venezuela.

While masa was common to both, Venezuelan peoples would use circular clay pans called aripos (another possible explanation to the name) and cook arepas over a fire. Colombians, on the other hand, placed their arepas on lajas, special flagstone slabs that were heated and brushed with fat. So, arepas, both Colombian and Venezuelan, have similar origins.

But I promised myself that I would not add fuel to the fire while writing this article, so let us consider some commonly known facts: 1) there is no clear evidence on who made the first arepa, 2) arepas are not solely a Colombian or Venezuelan food, and 3) even though they are not called arepas, other countries developed similar recipes with different names. Bolivia, for example, has a version of arepa (made with yellow corn) that is common in the Cotoca region.

Puerto Rico has arepa de coco as well. Plus, you might be familiar with Mexican gorditas, Salvadoran pupusas, Panamanian tortilla changa or Ecuadorian tortilla de maíz, all of which are made with corn. Also, think about this: corn was brought to Europe and Asia via the Spanish colonization, so modern Italian polenta or Romanian (porridge) would not be possible without our valuable crop.

And let’s not mention the other uses for corn in chips, popcorn, syrups and even fuels. All this is to say: instead of debating whether arepas come from Colombia or Venezuela, I prefer to look at the vital role that corn, their main ingredient, which is also native to the American continent, has had all over the world. Before I get carried away, let us come back to arepas. Since they are most common in Colombia and Venezuela, I will show you some of their many varieties.

Colombian arepas tend to be flatter and often have less filling, but that is not always the case, as we shall see. One of the most famous types is, as popularized by the movie Encanto (2021), the arepa con queso. It is eaten all over the country and is a popular street food. This arepa is all about the cheese, which melts inside a crispy, golden crust. They are traditionally grilled (sometimes wrapped) on banana leaves and can be topped with butter, any sauce or even more cheese.

Arepas de huevo are fried yellow corn arepas with an egg (or sometimes two) inside. Some versions also include ground beef, chicken or potato as a filling. These are found in the Caribbean region of Colombia and sold mainly in food stands.

This recipe requires large vessels where arepas can float and fry in the hot, sizzling oil. Although this method was left for street vendors, many recipes show how this can be done in a home setting, even with an air fryer. Unlike grilled arepas con queso, arepas de huevo are fried twice: the first dip cooks the dough and the second, the eggs.

Venezuelan arepas are much thicker (which often requires some oven baking) and can be filled with all kinds of ingredients. The Reina Pepiada (perhaps most politely translated as curvy queen) might just have the best-sounding name of all arepas.

These might look like simple white corn arepas at the beginning, but once they are cooked through, they are sliced down the center to make room for filling. Reina Pepiada arepas are filled with shredded chicken and a salad made of avocado, onion, cilantro, mayonnaise and lime juice. Optionally, they can be “garnished” by stuffing them with avocado slices and more mayonnaise.

Similarly, you can find the arepa pelúa (hairy arepa) in Venezuela. It is also filled to the brim but with shredded beef. It is no surprise, then, that the thin, protruding strands of meat and cheese give this arepa another unusual name.

It can be filled with any type of beef that can be shredded in long, thin pieces like brisket, flank or skirt steak. Although options for extra fillings abound, a basic arepa pelúa only needs shredded beef and queso amarillo. No matter the variety, what is clear is that arepas, especially the thick, almost hamburger-tall ones, are pillars of Venezuelan cuisine.

I also want to show other recipes that, even though they are not called arepas, they are also made from corn and with similar techniques. I consider these arepa’s not-so-distant relatives. Mexican gorditas (“fatties” or “chubbies”) can be thought of as thick corn tortillas with a pocket in the middle, almost like a Venezuelan arepa. Commonly, they are stuffed with refried beans and cheese, pork in a green chile sauce, chorizo and eggs, ground beef and potato or just potatoes stewed in a green chile sauce… Like many Mexican foods, choices for filling gorditas are endless.

Pupusas are corn cakes from El Salvador and Honduras (this is another friendly debate). Its name comes from the náhuatl word pupushaua meaning “puffed up”. They differ from gorditas and Venezuelan arepas in that they are thinner and are topped with curtido, a cabbage, carrot and onion slaw. They can be filled with refried beans, shredded cheese and even meat that has been puréed into forming a paste.

We cannot finish the article without mentioning choclo, a sweet, yellow variety of corn, used all over South America. It is the main ingredient of Venezuelan cachapas and arepas de choclo in Colombia, but since choclo is a Quechuan word, why not show a recipe from a country like Peru? Arepas might not be popular there, but they certainly make corn cakes, especially in the Northern regions. Tortitas de choclo add eggs and a little bit of sugar to the dough. This sweetness contrasts perfectly with the tanginess of its toppings, that could be onions, fresh herbs, corn kernels or even ceviche… a true balance of flavors.

Arepas are then key in Colombian and Venezuelan gastronomy. Together with gorditas, pupusas and tortitas, they form a sort of family of white, yellow, sweet and savory corn cakes from Latin America. Obviously, this would not have been possible without the hands of those who, for centuries, have been growing, harvesting and preparing corn, a crop native to the American continent. The next time you have the chance to try any of these foods, think about all the work it takes to make it. I am sure you won’t regret taking a bite.

 


Javier Cataño García | University of South Florida, Tampa

My name is Javier Cataño García and I am pursuing a M.A. in Spanish, with focus on linguistics and literature, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where I also teach undergraduate Spanish courses. I was born and raised in Colombia, but I have lived in the United States since August 2021. I have always had a special interest in foreign languages and geography, and I am looking to channel that interest through Latina Republic. I also have some training and experience in English-Spanish translation and interpretation. Although my professional career has been centered in teaching, I enjoy delving into other areas such as music, cooking and journalism. I hope to find new directions in my career through Latina Republic.