- 1 Eleven varieties to know.
- 2 A Quick Arepa Masa History Lesson
- 3 The Anatomy of an Arepa
- 4 All About the Fillings
- 4.1 PABELLÓN
- 4.2 REINA PEPIADA // PIMPED-OUT QUEEN
- 4.3 SIFRINA // THE PREPPY SNOB
- 4.4 ROMPE COLCHÓN // MATTRESS BREAKER
- 4.5 DOMINÓ // THE DOMINO
- 4.6 PELUDA (PELÚA) // THE HAIRY ONE
- 4.7 CATIRA // BLONDIE
- 4.8 PERICO // THE PARROT
- 4.9 AREPITA DULCE // SWEET AREPA
- 4.10 LLANERA // GRASSLANDS
- 4.11 VIUDA // THE WIDOW
Eleven varieties to know.
No hay nada más venezolano que una arepa, or “There’s nothing more Venezuelan than an arepa,” is a common phrase that sums up the importance of the arepa in Venezuelan life. Since the beginning of culinary time, the country’s most iconic food has fed and united people of all socioeconomic classes. “Arepas are our tradition and culture,” says Carlos García, chef at Alto Restaurante in Caracas and an ambassador of contemporary Venezuelan cuisine. “Arepa is our daily bread.”
Arepa is like a pita pocket sandwich made from corn flour. It can be eaten as a main course or a side; during the morning, afternoon, or evening; for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Stuffed with fillings, it’s a substantial meal; served plain, it replaces bread. You may recognize its regional relatives—like the flattened Colombian arepa, Salvadoran pupusa, Panamanian tortilla, and Mexican gordita—but ask any Venezuelan, and they will tell you the arepa venezolana is the king of all corn cakes.
A Quick Arepa Masa History Lesson
Arepa preparation has changed dramatically since ancient times, but the fundamental process for making masa para arepas remains the same: corn must be separated from its endosperm, milled, and kneaded to make dough. During the pre-Columbian era, native Venezuelans did this by chewing the corn, spitting it out, and piling it up in a big mound until they had enough to create a moldable, bread-like dough. Then, they cooked the masa patties in an aripo (clay pan) until the outside formed a hard shell. As the years went by, they found different methods to make masarepa instead of chewing, soaking and/or boiling dried maize kernels and pounding the corn with rocks. Soon after Spain colonized Venezuela in the sixteenth century, sophisticated tools like the pilón, a massive wooden mortar and pestle that pounded the corn so that only the mortared maize remained, and the molino, a manual corn mill, further improved arepa preparation.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s—Venezuela’s industrial age—that the arepa game changed forever. Dr. Luis Caballero Mejías, an engineer and professor, introduced an alternative that rendered the labor-intensive pilón obsolete: a precooked, boiled maize flour that created an instant masa for arepas when mixed with water. In 1960, the company Empresas Polar industrialized production, and Harina P.A.N. (short for Producto Alimenticio Nacional, or National Alimentary Product) was born. The miracle Harina P.A.N. flour quickly spread across the country, becoming a household name synonymous with arepa-making.
It’s impossible to ignore how Venezuela’s current state of turmoil has affected arepa-eating culture and disrupted daily consumption habits. Due to social and political unrest and skyrocketing inflation, Harina P.A.N. has virtually disappeared from the supermarket shelves, along with basic pantry items like eggs, cheese, butter, and meat. In years past, Venezuelans abroad would beg their loved ones inside the country to send Harina P.A.N. to make arepas; now, locals wait in hour-long lines for rationed bags.
Despite the crisis in Venezuela, the country still lives and breathes arepas. “It would be impossible for arepas to disappear from the Venezuelan table,” García says. “When Harina P.A.N. isn’t available, we make arepas the old-fashioned way, substituting it with maíz pilado, and even make arepa dough from mandioca (cassava root) or sweet potato.”
The Anatomy of an Arepa
Making arepas from corn requires patience, technique, and physical strength. Making them from masarepa, however, is much simpler: add an equal part of salted water to the corn flour.
Once the dough is formed, portion it into round balls then press them into flat cakes. The actual size depends on personal preference, but usually the rule is to make arepas one finger thick so there is enough room to split lengthwise and stuff with ingredients.
From there, the arepas can be grilled, fried, or baked. Grilled arepas are traditionally cooked on a budare, a thick cured iron (sometimes clay) griddle passed down from generation to generation. Some arepa masters (shout out to my ma!) quickly dip the arepas into fire to give them a slightly carbonized flavor and crunchy shell. Check your arepa by giving it a strong tap; if it’s done, you’ll hear the empty echoing of the hard crust. Then, slice the arepa lengthwise and sandwich with all sorts of wonders.
When eating arepas at home, place all the ingredients on a table for a make-your-own-arepa extravaganza: butter, queso fresco, nata (like sour cream), suero de mantequilla (buttermilk), caraotas (black, white, or red beans), pico de gallo (avocado, tomato, onion, vinegar, and cilantro), and proteins like eggs, tuna, ham, sardines, and chicken. Any leftover meat from the night before, like carne mechada (shredded beef) or pernil (roasted pork shoulder), is fair game and eligible for stuffing.
Arepa fillings differ by region. All across Caracas, areperas (restaurants that specialize in arepas) offer dozens of fillings, including the popular chicharrón, fried pork with skin. On the coast, arepas tend to be filled with fish and seafood (like cazón, school shark, and rompe colchón, similar to ceviche). Near the Colombian border it’s common to find the arepa andina, which is made with wheat instead of corn flour. In the countryside, arepas are stuffed with meat like chigüire (capybara), the largest rodent in the world, while in the south, an area known for cheese production, various varieties of queso fresco make an appearance, such as queso de mano, queso llanero, and queso guayanés. All over the country, arepa frita captures hearts, especially in Zulia, where the tumbarrancho originated: it’s a mother lode of an arepa that is grilled, battered, deep fried, and stuffed with mortadella, queso de mano, cabbage, ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. And of course there’s the asado, or barbecue, when beef cuts and sausages are thrown on the grill along with the arepas, for a free-for-all feast smothered in guasacaca (avocado sauce).
All About the Fillings
While the ingredient combinations are endless, there are a number of standard flavors essential to know.
Invite a Venezuelan over for pabellón criollo, the country’s national dish of caraotas negras (black beans), sweet fried plantains, carne mechada (shredded beef), queso fresco, and white rice, and he will be your best amigo forever. The arepa pabellón makes your Latin flavor dreams come true in one perfect bite: all of the leftover pabellón goodness stuffed inside like one big happy arepa family.
REINA PEPIADA // PIMPED-OUT QUEEN
The name pays tribute to two of Venezuela’s favorite spectacles: voluptuously curvy women and beauty-pageant competitions. In 1955, Susana Duijm was the first Venezuelan to win the Miss World crown, and in her honor, the reina pepiada was born: a stacked arepa filled with a mixture of shredded chicken, avocado, lime, mayonnaise, cilantro, and peas. (Today, the recipe varies; it doesn’t always call for peas.)
SIFRINA // THE PREPPY SNOB
You take the reina pepiada, add some shredded cheese, and you get the preppy snob, an arepa that tries to dress up all classy for appearances, but when the smoke screen disappears, it’s really just chicken with cheese.
ROMPE COLCHÓN // MATTRESS BREAKER
Commonly found in Venezuela’s coastal beach towns, this ceviche-like arepa is jammed with whatever fruits from the sea are available. Seafood like oysters, scallops, octopus, mussels, squid, and shrimp are cooked in lime juice and vinegar and mixed with onions, peppers, garlic, tomato sauce, and ají dulce. Supposedly, the dish has so much aphrodisiac power that anyone who eats it will break their mattress that night.
DOMINÓ // THE DOMINO
People across Venezuela used to gather to drink, eat, and play dominoes. And just like the game, the arepa mimics the contrasting black and white pieces with its mega duo of flavor-packed caraotas negras (black beans) and a hard white queso fresco (similar to feta).
PELUDA (PELÚA) // THE HAIRY ONE
Hair inside your sandwich isn’t really the most appetizing idea, but a meaty arepa pelúa is a whole different story. The word itself might refer to someone as hairy as Chewbacca, but the actual arepa is made from pulled beef (which kinda looks like strands of hair, right?) and shredded cheese. Carne mechada, a staple on the Venezuelan table, consists of a cheap cut of beef that is boiled until tender, shredded with two forks, and blended with garlic, onion, red pepper, tomato, and cumin sofrito.
CATIRA // BLONDIE
Catira translates to blonde women, which this arepa is sort of evocative of: shredded pieces of chicken with shredded queso amarillo (yellow cheese).
PERICO // THE PARROT
Huevos pericos literally means parrot eggs, and it is a typical dish in Venezuela. Buttery scrambled eggs are combined with a sofrito of tomato, garlic, and onion or scallion. No parrots were actually harmed in the making of this arepa. Instead, the name comes from the parrot-like colors on the plate—vibrant yellow, red, and green.
AREPITA DULCE // SWEET AREPA
It’s common to see the arepita dulce all across Venezuela. It’s characterized by its sweet and fried masa flavored with papelón (panela, unrefined whole sugar cane) and anise. Oftentimes this fried arepa is stuffed with queso fresco. (This is more of a style of arepa rather than a set flavor.)
LLANERA // GRASSLANDS
Livestock roam the grassy Venezuelan countryside, an area known for its wildlife and beautiful, flat landscape. This arepa channels the farmland with strips of grilled beef heavily seasoned with spices and topped with sliced tomato, avocado, and queso guayanés, a fresh, salty cheese similar to mozzarella.
VIUDA // THE WIDOW
This is the arepa without a spouse, served alone, plain, or as an accompaniment with soups and hearty stews. If you ask for the viuda at an arepera, you get an arepa two-for-one, stuffing the second arepa with all the extra stuffing that fell out from the first.
There’s no wrong way to stuff an arepa. Part of the corn pocket’s great charm is its versatility. As long as the ingredients harmonize, there are no rules when it comes to filling the arepa. Chef García, who has been known to put unconventional fillings like chocolate and cow tongue in his arepas at Alto, agrees. “Creativity is everything,” he says. “No filling is too strange for an arepa. Anything flavorful works.”