The Arepa Wars

Let’s get one thing straight: the Arepa is on the front line of the Economic War. On one side we have the fascists: Polar Corp in allegiance with...

A graffiti. "Wanted"
A graffiti. "Wanted"
A graffiti. “Wanted”

Let’s get one thing straight: the Arepa is on the front line of the Economic War. On one side we have the fascists: Polar Corp in allegiance with Gamma Group; Plaza Inc; and Central Maderiense Enterprises – a capitalist cabal bent on stealing the tostada. On the other our gentle, peace-loving, infinitely just government.

Heeding the call of duty, I gird up for a fight. I’m not alone here. Others are leaving their pellejo in the fight to liberate the chicken. Me? My mission is to free the arepa from its polar chains.

It’s Sunday. I head to Chacao’s market at 0800 hours and went straight for the corn section, but only yellow (sweet) corn was on offer. After some intelligence gathering, I regroup for an assault the grain vendors. Ask at one stall -we’re out-. Ask at another stall, same thing. I’m not about to let an early set back beat the fight out of me. A third ask and -Yes, 30 Bs per kilo- Yes!

Sure, it’s four times what a kilo of Harina PAN costs but who cares? There’s no doubt in my mind that this very humbly dressed sixtysomething inside his dark and dingy stall is in on the conspiracy. CIA, probably. Or maybe Mossad.

Now I have my corn. I’m surprised to find that Google knows very little about how to make arepas from scratch. Damn, the CIA again. I realize I need to resort to our ancestral, pluriethnic and multicultural wisdom. I call my aunt. I get a convoluted explanation. Call mom. She has vague childhood memories of doing this.

The fog of war.

I do my best to reconstruct the process. Clean off the inedible bits from the corn, wash off the starch, boil the corn but do so keeping always seven fingers of water over the top. This I am told is to keep water recirculating. Have another pot of boiling water on the side to add and compensate for evaporation. Never add cold water. Never! It will “stun” the corn and it will never ever cook or form a dough. Once cooked, drain, rinse (to remove more starch). Let it cool and start grinding. Thankfully, I have materiel: an old but trusty electric grinder.

The kneading starts. It evolves from an uneven sticky texture to something uniform. Tacky, but not sticky. Delicate, yet simple.

After several hours of work I had a dough. I couldn’t wait to make an arepa. Quick, heat the budare. Keep a lookout for Polar death squads. Make the round shapes and cook them over low heat for 40 minutes (turns out that arepas made from ground corn take longer). Proceed to cut me some fresh white cheese and avocado. The sweet taste of victory. In the words of Calixto Pompa “the bread given by work is better than the honey laboriously made by the bee in the rose bush”.

I found myself emancipated from Polar. La revolución avanza.

Oh the fun. But, to be serious, I should face it. On Sunday, I was defeated, we all were.

Harina PAN is just a brand owned by Polar. One with enormous brand recognition. Harina PAN is nothing fancy. It is a pre-cooked corn flour. It is precooked because the corn is cooked, then ground, then dried. We owe the production process to Luis Alberto Caballero Mejias, which patented the process that he later sold to Polar.

Mejias’ story is remarkable. He created an incredible product. One that emancipated millions from the drudgery that ate my Sunday. We don’t think of it that way, but Harina PAN is Venezuelan biotech innovation. It’s about transformation, not extraction. It’s about adding value to a commodity. This is the type of innovation that development is built on.

It’s not just that people – basically women – have been relieved of all this mindless work, it’s that they can still get their staple affordably. Pre-cooked corn flour created so much value to Venezuelans that it  instantly became universal. No one thought of continuing the traditional method regardless of the extra cost. There was much more value in the time savings than in the cash savings.

On Sunday I was defeated.