May was a terrible month for Venezuela: the worst in a string of bad months in the worst year in a string of bad years. Amid the carnage, the lowly arepa is facing a paradox. The sine qua non of Venezuelan foods, Venezuelans’ pan de cada día, has gone global… just as it perishes back home.

Venezuelans eat a lot of arepas. Or at least we used to. Often described in foreign media as a “corn patty” (a horrible way to put it —yuck!), it’s really the stuff Venezuelan childhood memories are made of —soft and succulent, crunchy and deeply satisfying… Man, I could go for one right now.

Venezuelans’ pan de cada día, has gone global… just as it perishes back home.

It’s one of the few pre-colonial food traditions left in modern Venezuela and, certainly, the most pervasive. Indigenous women in the region that now makes up Panama, Colombia and Venezuela would soak maize kernels, which would later be husked, dried and ground into a fine flour. They would mix that flour with water to create balls of dough and then flatten them into disks. The pale-golden disks would then go on a budare, a hot clay surface that would toast the cakes on both sides, but leave the inside fluffy and moist.

José de Acosta, a sixteenth century Jesuit explorer and philosopher, wrote that the budare was like a sacrificial stone for the rite of the first bread. That’s what the arepa was for indigenous people. I wouldn’t quite call the contemporary Venezuelans’ thing for arepas religious, but it’s not far from it either.

For Venezuelan homemakers in the fifties (and in richer houses, for their maids) making an arepa was not very different than for the indigenous women back in pre-colonial times. It required time, sweat and labor; soaking corn for at least 24-hours, laboriously washing each kernel to husk it, grinding it with massive mortars and pestles. The only thing that was easier was procuring the corn. I imagine that back then “Vamos a comer arepa, mi amor” began more than a few spousal spats.

But in 1954 an engineer called Luis Caballero Mejías — a real renaissance man criollo and one of the men responsible for bringing technical higher education to Venezuela — introduced patent #5176 in the Ministry of Commerce and single-handedly changed Venezuelan culinary customs — and arguably Venezuelan identity — forever. He devised machinery and an industrial process that transformed arepa making into a space-age “add water y listo. He registered the brand La Arepera, and felt the business was un tiro al piso: “I knew the business was good, the flour was good, and therefore the result couldn’t be bad,” he wrote in a letter to his investors in 1954.

If Naples had been a thriving land of opportunity, you’d never have heard of Pizza.

Someone else really liked the idea. When Mr. Caballero fell ill and needed money, one Lorenzo Mendoza Fleury — in a capitalist stroke of genius — bought the patent for 275,000 bolívares. It might not sound like much in revolución bolívares, but it was the equivalent of paying almost $750,000 dollars today. There’s plenty of credit to give to Empresas Polar, however. They perfected the industrial process, especially the drying and toasting portion of it, and tackled the monumental task of convincing 1960’s women of the quality of this magic flour. They sent out thousands of women to the streets of the biggest cities in the country, dressed up in costume, to show homemakers how to make arepas the modern way. The slogan “se acabó la piladera” took over and the rest, as they say, is history.

Before the hunger season set in, peak consumption of precooked corn flour was estimated at 30 kg per person per year. At 25 arepas per kilo, that comes to 750 arepas per person a year. You read that right. Give Venezuelans the chance and they’ll eat two arepas every day of the year (you still need to take into account bollitos, hallacas, empanadas and other kind of foods made with corn flour; but, trust me: it’s still a lot of arepas).

The regime has decimated even that, of course. The National Assembly’s Special Commission on Agricultural Crisis calculated that this year’s consumption will drop to 15.5 kilos per person, mostly due to corn shortages. The days of “está buena, dame otra” have gone the way of the dodo.

But as it dies at home, the arepa is experiencing its moment under the sun around the world. Of course, we’re not the only disaster-struck people this has happened to: the fall of Saigon was a tragedy for untold numbers of Vietnamese people… but also the reason you can get incredible Phở just about everywhere now. And trust me, if Naples had been a thriving land of opportunity, you’d never have heard of Pizza.

We’re not that different: scatter us around the world, and we’ll bring arepas with us. When Caracas Arepa Bar opened in Manhattan in 2003, New Yorkers couldn’t tell an arepa from a cachapa or a patacón — it stood as the lone showcase of the Venezuelan arepa in the big apple. Today, with over twenty Venezuelan restaurants in the city (and growing), the arepa — and Venezuelan culinary tradition in general — has made its mark on the international culinary scene.

I’ve traveled to arepa places in Barcelona and in San Francisco, and they all taste like home. The fillings might change: manchego cheese and iberian ham instead of carne mechada and queso amarillo, or cantonese marinated pork belly instead of Diablitos —but then, putting crazy things inside an arepa is all in the spirit of the thing. We tend to forget, but the first “portu” to put chicken-avocado salad inside an arepa and call it a “Reina Pepiada” (a classic today) was committing what back then was seen as a culinary provocation, at best, or a sacrilege at worst.

The arepa itself, the dough that is and will always be water, corn and salt, remains the same. It still has the indentations of the fingers that pressed them —and for any Venezuelan living abroad, it will always taste like what we’ve left behind.

I’m no longer surprised when a chef on a cooking show makes an arepa and wins, or when Arepa Zone wins best food truck in Washington D.C. for the second year in a row. When I moved to Austin in 2006, the only place for an arepa was in my kitchen. Today I have my pick of locations (they’re never as good as mine, and none will ever be as good as my mom’s).

On the streets of Lima, Peru, you have young Venezuelan professionals, once middle-class, selling arepas to the Peruvian working class (they love them, by the way). You have American moms and personal trainers blogging about the new gluten-free “it” food. And you can’t take four steps in Miami without smelling arepas on a grill.

But, perhaps, the Venezuelan arepa’s biggest coup came in… Colombia. Colombians, of course, have their own arepa-making tradition: sad little flattened and cracked things with toppings piled absurdly on top, rather than stuffed inside, como Dios manda. Yet, even in Colombia there’s a bit of a craze for arepas rellenas —i.e. proper, Venezuelan-style arepas, with the filling inside, where it belongs.

The arepa has arrived. You’re welcome, world.

That is no consolation for the millions of Venezuelans who are struggling to feed their families today: standing in line for hours to get their price-controlled bag of corn flour, or haggling on the black market and spending fifteen times as much. Some of those people will join the bolivarian diaspora soon enough. The lucky ones will take planes to Miami or Bogotá and join relatives or friends, use their university degrees to get jobs at Best Buy. The less fortunate are starting to take rafts to Curaçao or buses to Boa Vista, fleeing hunger. The outright unlucky —and the stubborn— have to stay. For them, the arepa has become not a symbol of everyday sustenance, but a luxury.

Thanks, Maduro.

72 COMMENTS

  1. Look:

    My wife is Venezuelan, married 28 years, I’ve been to VZ 20 times (all but once pre-Hugo), and she makes them every other day. A few years ago, we went on the hunt for a replacement stove-type cast-iron press. Makes 4 at a time. We live in Florida now, formerly NYC.

    The old one broke, you can’t find them in the U.S., and my wife pukes at these electric units they sell. The “shape” she says isn’t right.

    Well, you couldn’t even find these old presses in VZ back then! It was a stroke of luck that one relative who was visiting us found one by a Chinese storeowner outside of Caracas somewhere.

    But my main point of this post:

    God bless the arepa and all those who worship it, but I can’t STAND them. And I’ve tried…man, I’ve tried…to acquire the taste. Just ain’t happening.

    Now cachapas, that’s a DIFFERENT story!

      • Freedom of speech!

        It’s really hysterical:

        My wife makes them a hundred ways, my sons love them, but just not me. That being said:

        When in VZ, I DID like the streetside areperias, where you had so many fillings to choose from, and they were smaller arepitas.

        So was my post a passive-aggressive attack on my wife’s cooking?

        I’ll leave that for others to decide!

        • From the very few posts of yours I have seen, it would appear you rarely if ever leave doubt in anyone’s mind as to your true meaning!

    • Welp, not everybody can like every kind of food.
      In my case, a childhood of “eat whatever your parents put in front of you” served me to enjoy basically everything edible that I can afford today, though sadly the choices are pretty narrow for reasons everybody knows.

    • For the love of God, don’t tell my wife, but her mum’s arepas are better … way better (my darling wife tries, she really does, but …. ) … although, I must say, even my wife’s are better on the budare than the electric areparia.

  2. I am deeply offended by this article! You did not mention hallaquitas! What planet are you from? I know it’s not Earth!

    Here, get educated! Maleducado! http://www.venezuelatuya.com/cocina/hallaquitasmaiz.htm

    At least you did mention arepa con carne mechada. That shows taste.

    I have tried a dozen times to make a good arepa. It looked so easy in Caracas, a big Portugues with a cloth and some kind of sharpened spoon, deftly dipping into the arepa al carbon and scooping out the moist inside, then stuffing it. Mine crumble. I tried Google for a recipe, but half of the sites are the Colombiano adulteration ” … sad little flattened and cracked things with toppings piled absurdly on top, rather than stuffed inside, como Dios manda.” (Classic line, classic!)

    Anyone got the formula for making a good arepa you can stuff without breaking? I tried more water and less water, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I tried baking in a covered dish, frying in a covered pan. Nothing works. What is the heat required, and the time, please? (Also, if anyone has the secret for making quesillo …?)

    Some of the best food in the world was almost free in Caracas. The best marroncitos. Batidos (long before anyone in the US caught on to making “slushies”). Pollo en brasas. The Rey del Pascado Frito (with hallaquitas, thank you). Best beer (Polar). Argentine beef (ternera). Coctel de aquacate con camarones. Hallacas. Fresh bread with unbeatable flavor. You could get the best haircuts, the best suits, the best door-thumping traffic, the best sunburn, the best warm air for swimming at night. It’s really ridiculous to try to go over everything superb to eat in Venezuela. This isn’t just reminiscing you know? You guys could open up the entire country as one huge restaurant!

    I mean really … WTF happened to you guys?! Man ….

    • P.S. I don’t mean to offend anyone with that last line. It just came out. Such a tragedy on such a grand scale. Such enormous loss to repair. For those of us who enjoyed your hospitality, heart, and love for life for so many years, it really is an immense sadness to have to witness all this. I believe the country can and will make it back.

      • I got one with four spaces. Still didn’t get it right. Read some reviews on Google, and other people didn’t get it right either. Mystery.

    • “Anyone got the formula for making a good arepa you can stuff without breaking?”

      Always add more water than seems necessary, and a tsp of vegetable oil to the dough.

      • Thank you – will try. You mean enough water so it sticks to your fingers everywhere, then aceite to make it unsticky, and so the outer shell won’t look like it totally dried out and cracked? I can substitute good ol’ US barbecue (shredded pork) for the carne mechada. It won’t be the same without Venezuelan condiments, but maybe close enough.

        The US corn meal cooking are called hushpuppies – no idea why – and they’re usually served with fried fish. They look like short, fat hotdogs, but golden white inside. Not bad at all. Southern dish, if you’ve get a chance, try some. (I don’t know how they make those.) We have good cornbread, too.

        http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/hushpuppies-recipe-1912936

        Now I do.

    • Crumbling happens because the wet dough needs working up. Amasar, in spanish. Take dough by the handfulls or put it on the table and work it until you feel it becomes smooth and homogeneous. Good luck.

    • “Anyone got the formula for making a good arepa you can stuff without breaking?”

      It’s a delicate art, a thing from the Zen.

    • Hi Chesko. I found it as part of a blog that Caballero Mejías’ family put up on the web. It has tons of historical info and photos. Really a treasure trove of interesting stuff. You can find the blog here: http://luiscaballeromejias.blogspot.com/2009/06/la-arepera-harina-precocida.html

      I’ve copied the letter here so you can take a look. It mentions some trouble that he was having with the machines that dried and toasted the corn (which, according to other info, Empresas Polar perfected).

      A la Asamblea General de Accionistas

      Señores: Cuando traté de fundar una Compañía para explotar la patente de mi propiedad “Masa de maíz deshidratada” los invité a participar en ella de buena fe. Sabía que el negocio era bueno, que la harina era buena y por lo tanto el resultado no podía ser malo. Constituida la Compañía, fue nombrada una Junta Directiva de la cual formo parte y se suponía que ella debería comenzar a trabajar. Durante algunos meses hice ver a mis compañeros la necesidad de buscar un local o construirlo en el menor tiempo posible. Después de ver muchos sitios inútiles, resolvieron los señores Antonina y Omar Quintero, comprar un terreno y construir el local. Desde un principio colaboré con ellos en el planeamiento del edificio para las necesidades de la industria. Escogí y preparé la maquinaria que se debía utilizar y fue comprada de acuerdo con mis indicaciones y trabajo de selección; fiscalicé la construcción de los pilones trasladándome a Maracay de acuerdo con las necesidades fui a los talleres industriales, regularmente, durante la construcción del secador. Proyecté la instalación de la maquinaria y calculé y dibujé las torres donde estas debían ser montadas para seguir el proceso que se traduciría en ahorro de mano de obra. Vigilé la construcción del edificio (propiedad de algunos socios) con el mismo interés y finalmente monté la maquinaria y equipo a un costo irrisorio como podía verse en caso de que se discrimine de lo pautado global, lo correspondiente a jornales. Aún sin terminar el montaje comencé las pruebas del equipo en mi afán por corresponder a los deseos de salir rápidamente al mercado. Casi todas las maquinarias resultaron. Sin embargo, al fallar el presecado ideado por el Ingeniero Fabián, como parte integrante del sistema, falló a su vez el secador. Desde ese mismo momento me he encontrado en la fábrica haciendo todas las pruebas que han sido necesarias a fin de obtener un resultado práctico en el trabajo, he ideado sistemas, y finalmente he hecho por mi cuenta y riesgo trabajos que nos están acercando a la solución del problema.Después de todo esto ustedes juzgarán.

      Ing. Luis Caballero Mejías

  3. My wife (expat living in the United States) turned me on to them when we were dating. I used to think that they were pretty plain. Bland even. Now, we eat them several times per week, as her relatives have come to live with us (and by us)… and I love them. I thought my wife was a pretty good cook until her aunt Luisa showed up… I don’t know what she does to her arepas, but they are some good eating now. Con carne mechada…delicious!

  4. If there is one thing us Yanks can do it is grow corn.

    We also have this marvelous airplane called a C-130 Hercules. You know, the one with the big ramp in the back that can fly low and slow and drop it’s cargo just about anywhere. There are at least a hundred Air Force C-130s in Texas just waiting for a mission. Each C-130 could carry 25 plus tons of corn flour.

    See where I am going here?

  5. As I write this I’m grinding boiled and washed cornin my power grinder. Very little corn left in the pueblo so I’m currently selling about 50 kilos a day of “masa” at 1500 bolo to the kilo. Yesterday I finished off my white corn so from here on out it’ll be the yellow stuff.

    I’ll eat arepa when there’s not much else but will grab a pastalito every trip of the train.

    • I have seen an auto engine, taken out of the vehicle, used in Guatemala to grind corn for tortilla masa.

      Guatemalan tortillas are much tastier than those in the US and a lot of Mexico. Thicker, actually taste like corn. Probably less lime.

      • There’s a place in Punte de Mata that uses a car’s gasoline engine for their trilladora of maiz. Man that thing flat out processes some corn. And for those of you not familiar with the process, making corn flour for arepas is not just a matter of grinding raw corn.

        We’ve reached the point here locally that the price of the raw grain has now reached 1500 bs per kilo. Toss in the cost of processing and about 15% loss (the nepe) and I don’t know how some of these shops sell at this price.

    • There’s Pepas on E 7th and Arepa’s Grill on N Lamar as far as I know. There’s also a truck I’ve seen in Rainey.

    • Yaya the best advice I can ever give about making a great arepa is this: follow the recipe in the back of the harina pan bag. They’ll come out perfect every time.

  6. My very foreign wife went “meh” the first time she had an arepa 12 years ago. Now if we go more than a week without me making some, she’ll just make them herself…

  7. My 3 years old daughter, asks me one day to put chocolate in her arepa, which seemed absurd to me. I tried. With dark chocolate (73% El Rey) inside, it’s delicious.

  8. Arepa Zone truck in DC is my favorite. Young Venezolanos making a living in a free economy. I wish they would put burn marks on the arepas. It adds to the flavor and the aroma.

  9. The last two Novembers I have been trying to get the DC area Venezuelan restaurants and food trucks to serve a Thanksgiving Arepa, with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. It is an absolutely amazing combination, but so far only one has tried it (but very hesistantly and half heartedly).

  10. ‘use their university degrees to get jobs at Best Buy’

    Is it really like that? Those well-educated Venezuelan citizens end up being underused in their new countries? If this is really the case, it’s a shame…

    • Yet another example of how the VZ mentality has destroyed their country.

      Don’t you know that there are American graduates with degrees taking minimum wage jobs too?

      And Americans are supposed to give a shit about immigrants, mostly illegal, who have to “lower” themselves the same way?

      Seriously:

      A lot of you folks don’t have a fucking clue:

      You complain in VZ, you complain in the U.S., and you complain about Americans complaining about you.

      Clean toilets for a few years, earn your right to be in America, but don’t blame America because you have to clean those toilets.

      Blame Venezuela.

    • In all honesty, many of these people who are scrubbing toilets and brewing coffee are Americans who thought early in their education that instead of pursuing a knowledge and skill set in college that would be useful, decided degrees in Gender Studies or Theater Arts was what they wanted to throw money at.

      In addition, many of these Americans want to live a lifestyle more than they want a career. Part time, menial work is right up their alley. It gives them time to hang out with their smelly, unwashed urban hipster friends to drink craft beer, spark up and bitch about how there are “no high paying jobs” requiring their unique talents.

      My wife (VZ expat) and I have sponsored over 17 of her relatives here in the United States in the last 3 years. Every single one of working age has a job. Every single one of college age is in college earning a VALUED degree. They might not be working in an area they were educated in, but they work their asses off and are doing far better than most of the ungrateful, angry Americans born and raised here. (Unfortunately, many college/university level degrees from VZ don’t transfer to the United States.)

      And it isn’t beneath any of us to clean a toilet. I earned my way through college doing just that.

    • Is it really like that? Those well-educated Venezuelan citizens end up being underused in their new countries? If this is really the case, it’s a shame…

      It can take time to make the transition to a professional job. I made friends in Argentina with a New England native and her family. She went to the Peace Corps in Peru, married a Peruvian, and moved to Argentina where her husband taught at a university. A daughter with a degree in chemistry, who worked in hospital labs, moved to the US after the 2001 crash in Argentina. She worked in a nursery for several years, but ended up getting re-certified in the US in her profession. It took 5-8 years to completely turn things around. It also took a lot of determination. What previous generations called grit.

      OTOH, I know Argentines and Venezuelans who stepped immediately into professional jobs in the US, courtesy of their company transferring them from Venezuela.

      As others have pointed out , there are plenty of born-in-the-USA people with college degrees who are working at barista-type jobs. The surplus of college educated people produces some absurdities. My cousin in Manhattan tells me that restaurants in NYC are requiring college degrees for hostess jobs. As if you need a college degree to guide people to their tables! (OTOH, that is how much value many non-STEM degrees add to your repertory. Or is that my STEM snobbery?)

      Nearly 20 years ago, I found myself without a job. I took a job with a startup that paid me peanuts. Because I was paid peanuts, and because they were building business expertise on the fly, I was given the time to teach myself databases and work myself into a better job. No previous computer certification- on the job training.

      Regarding cleaning toilets, I am reminded of what a childhood friend told me. His grandmother, an immigrant from Finland, cleaned toilets at Cornell University. He got his BS from Cornell- the university where his grandmother cleaned toilets.

  11. When El Tirano Aguirre visited our shores some 4 centuries ago , being in rebellion agaisnt the king of spain he sent a party from Margarita to the main land to do battle with our ancestors who were then defending the king of spain, a letter survives where he chides that party for not being aggresive enough telling them ‘are you so cowardly that you are going to let some ‘come arepas’ beat you?? He clearly saw original venezuelans as ‘come arepas’, arepa eating being a badge of venezuelan nationality …..even then.

    Some centuries later as Gneral Pablo Morillos 10.000 strong spanish army expedition arrived at Margarita to quell Bolivars rebellion he sent a letter to his principals in spain complaining that they had nothing to eat , that the only local food to be had was some hideous corn concoction called arepas that only an animal could enjoy !!

    Clearly Venezuelans taste for arepas is a very rooted tradition that marks a national culinary trait ……Now the Venezuelan diaspora is making its taste known all over the world with some success ……..!!

    I have some foreign friends who in all honesty never get to like its taste ….curiously enough they are unable to make that derisive ‘aaay papa’ sound that is such a common part of our verbal customs …they trie time and again but can never learn to do it……!!

    • Many thanks to Alejandro Puyana on his account of the Arepa and to you for sharing these historical nuggets about the “come arepa’s”. Now if we could only get rid of this group of “come m$#%da’s” ruining it for the rest of us.

  12. I know, Heresy!
    Even though I can gladly polish arenas, what I really like is “arepitas” (smaller) and of course, deep fried. If shredded cheese is added to the arepita all the better!

  13. Ye know what, your article made me go lunch a couple of arepas made in an old budare that was stashed somewhere in my house, had to wash and clean it since it hasn’t been used in years (Too much tostyarepa)

    Even when the flour used was that mexican one that tastes weird, the arepas came out pretty good.

    • I have a 5 lb bag of Maseca that I bought in desperation almost a year ago. I have not yet gotten myself to open it and make arepas out of it…

      • Many years ago, I went to college in Mexico and in order to stretch my Harina Pan, I used to mix it with Maseca (half of each). I discovered that they were better than Harina Pan only. Give it a shot.

  14. Love arepas, I miss my grandma’s arepas so much. I left Venezuela over a decade ago. Every time I go on holidays I always check if there is an arepa restaurant where I go. My lovely British wife is so patient comprandome la pólvora and going to places that sometimes are really far from our route. In every restaurant i have visited I found an owner dreaming about the good old tines in Venezuela. I once had an arepa in Geneva and even got a Polarcita with it!

  15. I have yet to hear of any Venezuelan restaurant in Chicago, nor any word of arepas. I wonder why: Chicago is a big foodie town… Google finds a few places, after all, but as I wrote, the buzz is inaudible.

    • Certainly not any new fads that I have heard of, the one Venezuelan restaurant I can recall has closed (last five years). Granted, compared to other cities I do not think the food truck thing is quite allowed here like elsewhere.

    • It turns out there is a restaurant with arepas not far away, and it’s been there several years. But it’s not publicly Venezuelan and I haven’t been there. I should try it; it has a 4.6/5 Google rating.

  16. The arepa, like the taco before it, will improve the lives of foreigners as it is dispersed throughout the globe, and dare I say it, the muched loved food will be improved, like the taco, as it moves from being a predictable, regional household staple to something made to attract diverse new followers overseas. It’s a classic case of unrealized potential unlocked by new opportunities in foreign lands…

    • Hey Kathy, three places in Austin are Four Brothers on S 1st, Pepa’s on E 7th and Budare’s on Burnet Rd. There are more, I see a trailer on Rainey some nights.

    • Spanish video: No quantities given. In addition, says “No importa la cantidad.” (Quantity is not important.) Throws some corn mean into the bowl. Adds a bit of water.
      English video: very precise measurements.

  17. Beautiful piece, brought a tear, my wife is Cuban, and learning earnestly to make them, actually the shortage of flour did help her as mom’s best were always thin, and believe or not we are in Vzla

  18. En realidad, es mentira todo. Los colombianos emigraron primero y le dijeron a todo el mundo que la arepa era suya. Llegamos tarde. Acá en Argentina, donde vivo desde hace años, la arepa se asocia más con Colombia que con Venezuela.
    Y todavía la mayoría de los lugares que venden arepa acá son colombianos, no venezolanos. Es triste, pero me ha tocado explicarle a muchos argentinos que 1) Venezuela y Colombia no son lo mismo y 2)que Venezuela no es parte de Centroamérica y 3- que la arepa es un plato originario de Venezuela (aunque igual es un tema discutible, pero hay que dar esa lucha).

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