We first encountered arepas – small round pan-fried breads made of boiled corn flour – in Astoria, Queens, thanks to my friend who brought us to Arepas Cafe after a long day of dancing to music at MOMA PS1 at the end of this summer. *Side note: this friend of mine is perhaps the only Indian person I’ve met who does not like Indian food; this ended up working out in our favor, as she loves arepas and turned us on to them!!* We were enthralled by the tastiness of these little gluten free breads, stuffed with different veggies and fish items. My favorite was stuffed with mushrooms and cheese; oh my lord, that was tasty!!
During our trip to North Carolina for Christmas this year, we went to visit a Venezuelan friend, who, when we inquired about arepas, proceeded to tell us that the Venezuelan arepas are the best in the whole world. Fortunately for us, he was a master arepas maker, and we easily talked him into making some for us. I was intrigued and needed to learn how to make this tasty treat.
He pulled out a bag of PAN, which was very strange for me; given that the word “pan” in spanish means bread, I quickly looked at the ingredients list. Fortunately, it was gluten free, made entirely out of pre-cooked white corn flour. Apparently, this is the stuff to use. The next step for me would be to try to find something similar but organic, which unfortunately, might prove to be impossible.
So he fills a bowl with PAN, dashes some salt into the bowl and adds a splash of corn oil. Then, to my surprise, puts the entire bowl under the water spout and starts filling up the bowl, splashing around the mixture with his hand- it looked almost as if he was washing the corn flour. I couldn’t figure out how much water he had added, but soon he turned off the spout and started forming a beautiful dough. It was soft, tender, and almost chalky. He kneaded the dough for several long minutes, until it had the “desired consistency”, as he said. This guy refuses to follow recipes and told me himself that he is a terrible teacher, which makes it difficult to put a solid recipe in this blogpost. Another guest at the house suggested it might be easier for a beginner to slowly add the water until it reaches a good consistency, which I think sounds reasonable. I was also told that you can make it without oil, but that adding oil makes it softer.
In any case, the dough was soft and beautiful by the time he was done kneading. As when making regular bread, the dough should not stick to your hand by the time it is ready to be cooked, and should not be gritty. He rolled a ball of dough in his hand about the size of his palm, and then flattened it down to about a half inch tall white round cake. The pan was a non-stick; without adding any oil or grease to the pan, our friend proceeded to cook the arepas until they were browned on both sides.
Once the arepa is on your plate, you cut into it as you would a pita bread. This produces a small amount of dough that sticks to the knife; this sticky dough is quite delicious! Eat it alone or mix it back into the sandwich. You can add anything to the arepa- cheese, veggies, meat- or you can just stuff it directly into your mouth. Be careful, though, as these little guys will burn your mouth in a heartbeat.
Here’s a picture of a vegan arepa; click on it for a link to the recipe.