A revolution has been cooking up for a while. It gained momentum over the past few weeks.
Arepas are taking over the world.
The Venezuelan daily bread has been getting more attention, at a time where virus infections, politics and elections are dominating the news.
Arepa is a round cornmeal bread, not a cake as defined by Merriam-Webster. Nor a Colombian cornmeal cake as Collins Dictionary puts it. This second definition is dangerously inaccurate. Arepas are made with cornmeal dough, not a batter as a cake would. Furthermore, the dough is kneaded to ensure a thorough bonding.
But above all, Arepas are Venezuelan and this is a statement that we are all passionately defend.
Whether cooked over the stove, grill or barbecue, Venezuelans have been eating Arepas since the XVI century.
Galleoto Cey, an Italian trader who lived in Venezuela for 14 years, included Arepas in his book ‘Travels and descriptions of the Indies, 1539-1553’. “They make a sort of bread with corn, as thick as a finger, round and big like a French dish or slightly smaller, and they cook them over the fire, in a greased pan to prevent them from sticking, flipping on both sides until cooked. To this, they call areppas…”
Our neighbours and siblings across our western border also make Arepas. They inherited them from indigenous people as we did. However, they don’t open them and fill them with multiple ingredients as we do. Colombians add toppings, or they eat them as a side bread. We do that with Pabellón.
Until 10 December 1960, Venezuelans would remove corn grains from the cob and process it thoroughly to create the thick dough required to make Arepas.
That Christmas Empresas Polar, the bastion of Venezuelan food manufacture, gave us the greatest gift of all: Harina P.A.N. (Pan flour). A pre-cooked cornmeal flour that, when mixed proportionally with water, creates Arepa dough.
Reducing the process to roughly 10 minutes allowed households to have Arepas more often, and to finally establish them as the basis of our DNA.
An Arepa is a lot more than a cornmeal bread. It is a symbol of identity, a basic need, an act of love and a window into the future.
A symbol of identity
There is an old saying, adapted by Venezuelans, that preaches: “every child is born with an Arepa under their arm”.
Cooked Arepa dough is likely the first thing that a Venezuelan baby, by birth or right, tries at the start of their weaning process.
We learn to clap by singing a song about Arepas. The smell of Arepas wakes us up in the morning. Arepas are the first thing we learn to cook for ourselves. We tend to our ill bellies by eating plain Arepas. We wrap up a great night out by having Arepas at 4 am. And we find comfort in Arepas when we are homesick.
According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 4,5 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela worldwide. My husband and I, most of our friends, and many members of our family are part of that statistic. Not all by choice.
Wherever Venezuelans go, Arepas come with us.
The first thing we research in a new area is where to find Harina P.A.N. It’s the first breakfast we prepare when we move into a new home. We offer Arepas to friends of other nationalities when we invite them over. We introduce colleagues to our culture by inviting them to the restaurants and food trucks of fellow Venezuelans, who have found in Arepas a way to make a living.
Today, people can buy arepas in 90 countries in the world. In over 520 outlets that include restaurants, street food stalls, food trucks, catering and delivery businesses. There are over 20 in the UK, based on those registered in the portal locosporlasarepas.com. I’ve visited a few in London, and not all appear on the site.
A basic need
My husband and I have lived in London for 9 years. We spent the first in classrooms, tourist spots, pubs and finding Venezuelan goods in unexpected places. We were studying for our Master’s degree in a city we first visited on the day we moved in.
Like every University student, our budget was tight. We rented a one-bedroom flat at a rate that can only be described as ridiculous (for London standards, that is) in the southeastern area of Deptford. Our flat was at a reasonable walking distance to Uni. It was two train stops away from London Bridge and a stone-throw from a High Street with many Caribbean shops.
Almost every independent shop in Deptford High Street carries Harina P.A.N. Our basic Venezuelan need was covered.
We decided to stay in London after Uni. Renting the same flat offered us a golden opportunity to save money for our future. When it was time to graduate into a bigger place, we started looking south-west. We arrived in Richmond two years ago, with four packs of Harina P.A.N. under our arms.
I started experiencing mild anxiety when we opened the second pack because sourcing Harina P.A.N. on this side of town isn’t as simple. It involves a ‘small trip somewhere’ to cover our needs. North End Road in West Kensington is closest, where you can also find other Latin American delicacies like queso fresco, Peruvian chillies, dulce de leche. Our ‘let’s go to Brixton to stock-up’ days are long gone.
An act of love
I have managed to write 10 posts on this blog without quoting or mentioning Anthony Bourdain. Why? Two simple reasons: 1. Every food blogger does it (and I bet it makes him roll his eyes, wherever he is). 2. He was a very private person. I found a certain Bourdain-ish egocentric pleasure in thinking that I was honouring him by keeping quiet.
Until today. Sorry Tony, go ahead and roll your eyes.
Anthony Bourdain visited Uruguay for season 11 of CNN’s Parts Unknown. The episode features a dinner with Chefs Ignacio Mattos and Lucia Soria. The conversation turns personal. In a moment of vulnerability, Bourdain admits that the best thing ever is cooking for someone you love. “There is a desire to say something you can’t say, to nurture.”
Anthony visited Venezuela in 2007 as a keynote speaker in the ‘Confessions of a Chef’ conference, also featuring acclaimed Venezuelan Chefs Édgar Leal and Sumito Estévez. Upon arrival, he asked for Arepas. According to this article (Spanish) in Revista Exclusiva, he had a ‘Reina Pepeada’ filled with chicken, avocado and mayo; and a ‘Llanera’ filled with steak, fresh white cheese, avocado and tomato.
Bourdain never got the chance to film a show in Venezuela, although he wanted to. Insurance companies wouldn’t cover the crew. At least he woke up one morning and stared at the mountains that crown Caracas. He also met great people, who showed him the good things about Venezuela that insurance companies would ignore a few years later. And our world-class Arepas nurtured him.
I watched the Uruguay episode a few days ago. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a dear friend who also left home. She told me that Arepas are an act of love. You make them with dedication because you want others to feel what home means to you in a bite: our mountains, our beaches, our music, our culture. It’s a circled bread that brings you closer to home and lets others come closer.
A window into the future
Venezuelan diaspora has proven that Arepas are part of the world’s culinary future. And Empresas Polar understand that. Their marketing team organised the Pan Arepa Challenge, a worldwide competition where participants are invited to explore their creative side and produce an innovative Arepa recipe.
Family and friends urged me to participate. I almost did.
I created a recipe of a red pepper Arepa, filled with porchetta seasoned with Latino-style salsa verde, avocado and plancha-toasted white cheese. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the courage to submit my Arepa. But hundreds of people in different parts of the world did.
All the entries I’ve seen on @allofpan’s Instagram stories are astounding. The recipes, the food presentation and the multimedia produced by all contestants are proof of the talent that has emerged as a consequence of the difficulties we have collectively endured. An ability to get up and try again, no matter how crudely you are pushed down.
Venezuela as a country may be fragile, volatile. Yet, Venezuela keeps growing strong thanks to those who have stayed, facing challenges unimaginable in the XXI century. Venezuela is also flourishing through the diaspora, spreading courage, resilience and wit, one Arepa at a time.
One of my favourite hits from the late 80’s, early 90’s, is a song called ‘Todo es un Círculo’ (Everything is a circle) by Venezuelan singer Melissa. The chorus goes “Wherever I go, no matter what I do, there’s no beginning nor end. Everything is a circle and it’s complete, now that I’ve returned to you”.
I haven’t, and may not be able to go back to Venezuela for a while. At least not physically. But every weekend, when one of us makes Arepas for breakfast, we return to her. And for that little time in our busy Londoner weeks, our circles are complete.
If you come across a business selling Venezuelan Arepas where you live, please join our revolution and try them. They are made with love and dedication by incredibly talented people, who long to show you our home in more than one bite.