Last week, I received an invitation to participate in the Pabellón Challenge by one of my writing mentors: Lena Yau. The creator is @LTroita, who came up with the idea after noticing photos of the Venezuelan national dish on Instagram, posted by two unrelated people. The goal is to reconnect Venezuelans with their food memory, wherever they are.
Away from home
Whether you live next door or over 9,000 km away from home, cooking Pabellón by yourself for the first time feels like reaching the pinnacle of adulthood. An independence dichotomy where you feel both empowered by your accomplishment and sad that it’s not your mother’s (or grandmother’s) cooking.
It’s daunting enough for some, who hold off eating Pabellón until their parents come to visit and cook it for them. However, as the number of Venezuelans living overseas continues to increase, so do the restaurants, food trucks, and market stalls where you can get your fix.
I cannot remember the first time I made Pabellón. I wish I could say it’s the one pictured here, but there’s no way for me to be sure.
The competitive side of me looks at that picture today, thinking that I used the wrong type of rice, and cringing with the thickness of those tajadas (ripe fried plantains).
Far from being perfect, it still brings a smile to my face.
This photo also carries memories of the person I was seven years ago, in the best possible way. It reminds me of all the things I’ve learned about food throughout the years, only by embracing my curiosity.
Aristotle was right
Pabellón is a meal composed of four key ingredients: shredded protein (most commonly beef), black beans stew, plain white rice and fried sweet plantains. Although these are delicious on their own, it’s the sum of all parts what makes this dish whole.
It is not as old as Aristotle’s principle, but Pabellón dates back to colonial times in Venezuela. Yet, it wasn’t served as a full meal in those days. Instead, the hosts would set the ingredients on the table as individual dishes, for guests to serve themselves or with the help of a steward.
In his trilogy Comer en Venezuela, El Pastel Que Somos, and El Señor de Los Aliños, journalist Miro Popić digs deep into the origins of Pabellón. His comprehensive work narrates the evolution of each of the ingredients, and their journey to become Venezuela’s national dish since the XVIII century.
If Pabellón were a story, Carne Mechada would be the dramatic main character. Strands of braised shredded beef in a tomato-based sauce with peppers and onions, it is the most elaborate of the concoctions and, as such, takes the longest to prepare.
According to historians, Venezuelans have been boiling, shredding, drying and frying beef with tomatoes and onions since 1823. However, its roots date all the way back to Mesopotamia. Records from 1226 describe two recipes of beef cut in lengths, fried with onions and spices; then slow-cooked again.
794 years later, the procedure, produce and end product are slightly different but the essence of the dish remains the same. And for it to be truly Carne Mechada, the beef needs to be thinly shredded: as thin as crickets’ legs.
The black beans stew is the controversial supporting act. For years, Venezuelans have been arguing over its proper seasoning: whether adding sugar to the beans is delicious or repulsive.
The combination of sweet and salty notes is a staple in Caracas-style cooking. As a true native of my city, I tend to apply this in my cooking, even beyond Venezuelan food. Surprisingly, my stance on the black beans stew is strong: the beans must always be salted.
Yet, this means that my precious black beans are not the real deal. Sugar cane appears as an ingredient on every single Caraotas Negras recipe I’ve come across. The sweetness is what differentiates our beans from others in Latin America. As noted by Chef Maricel Presilla in her book Gran Cocina Latina: “The sweeter the soup, the more steeped is the cook in Venezuelan tradition”.
Unlike any pre-conceptions you may have about the part it plays in this story, plain white rice is the casanova in Pabellón. It might look like a bland, complimentary side dish, but it pairs wonderfully when eaten together with either the beef or the beans.
Arroz Blanco is one of the most common side dishes in Venezuelan food. Whether cooked using the absorption or the pilaf method, long-grain white rice is piled over dishes for both lunch and dinner.
It also serves a sauce-carrier function: if the beans or beef juices are on the runny side, the rice will absorb them so you don’t miss out on an ounce of flavour.
The most fun, perky, and lovable of all characters. The overly ripe, deep-fried plantains complete the Pabellón. Their texture is soft and the taste is purely sweet. So much, that the natural sugars of the plantains caramelise in the oil, creating a delicate crust on the rim of each slice.
To reach this level of candy-like glory, the plantains must be overly ripe, at the point where you think it’s too late. It isn’t.
I ate fried ripe plantains for lunch, after school, almost every day until I was 17. I never grew tired of them. My first experiment with food was adding a bit of salt to the tajadas. I still do.
Other great characters and adaptations
Pabellón may also be served with an Arepa (the queen of Venezuelan food), as the equivalent of a slice of bread on the side. A fried egg with a runny yolk, slices of avocado, grated fresh white cheese, and rustic chilli sauce are also suitable companions.
Venezuela is a small but very diverse country in terms of geography. This results in cultural nuances, deep in some cases, from one region to another. Logically, these differences made their way into Pabellón.
The rice, beans and plantains remain untouched, the protein is what varies. In Oriente, the eastern coast of Venezuela, Pabellón is served with a stew of crumbled dogfish with peppers, onions and achiote oil. Whereas in Los Llanos, the central plains, shredded capybara meat replaces the beef.
The truth is out there
As much as it hurts my little Venezuelan heart to admit, Pabellón is not one of a kind.
The presence and combinations of these four elements across Latin American food serve as undeniable traces of Spanish colonisation. Whether within the continent, or in the Caribbean Islands, there are numerous dishes with rice, beans, plantains and protein.
To name a few: Colombia has Bandeja Paisa, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have Gallo Pinto, Belize has Rice and Beans, Brazil has Feijoada, Puerto Rico has Arroz con Gandules, Dominican Republic has La Bandera.
But to me, the closest is Cuba’s Ropa Vieja, also a dish of braised shredded beef in a tomato sauce, served with fried plantains and Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice); proving that the bond between our countries has more to do with food, and a lot less with politics.
Have you tried Pabellón?
I look forward to hearing your stories in the comments below!