James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Remembrance of Arepas Past as Venezuela Suffers

A Remembrance of Arepas Past as Venezuela Suffers

Arepas in Caracas

The smell of burnt corn slowly crept into my dreams. When I woke up, I’d run down the stairs with Christmas-morning excitement to see my mom standing over the budare, a thick iron pan cured for years and used for making arepas.

The coffeemaker whistled and thundered as it brewed, and all of the breakfast smells began to come together: Caraotas negras (black beans), perfectly cooked creamy eggs with tomato and onion, refried leftover carne mechada (pulled beef) from last night’s dinner, sweet plantains, a bowl of nata (sour cream), queso fresco. Even the cloth that covered the arepas to keep them warm had its distinct smell.

I’d be the first person to sit down at the big table, giddy to begin our family’s arepa-eating ritual. Venezuelan arepas are made from maíz blanco—a white corn that’s been around since before colonization. Unlike Colombian arepas, in the Venezuelan version we stuff the fillings on the inside, like a pita. It is our daily bread. There is no wrong way to fill an arepa. You can go traditional and fill it with reina pepiada, a mixture of shredded chicken with avocado, cilantro, lemon, and peas; or dominó, queso fresco, and black beans; or a totally different combination, like dominó with avocado.

We’d pass the basket around the table, the arepas covered with a dishtowel so clean it still had the slightest scent of detergent. We’d each grab one arepa, place it in our palm, and open it with technique and precision. I’d softly stick the point of the knife inside, carefully but quickly shifting to open it without burning my hand. A cloud of hot corn steam would hit me in the face. The next step had to happen fast, because I didn’t want the arepa to get cold: I added the butter, buttermilk, and cheese and closed it back up until they melted together. While I waited, I’d ask my family to pass the rest of the ingredients.

This was all over 15 years ago, before I started to cook professionally. Before the food shortages. Before Maduro and Chavez, two leaders who ruled by violence, deprivation, and destruction. Before I fled to Argentina in 2011, because Venezuela was no longer safe. In Argentina I went to culinary school and started cooking in high-end restaurants. I also started a supper club showcasing Venezuelan flavors, and started making videos of my favorite recipes so Venezuelan food would always be present in my life.

In Venezuela’s chaos, many basic goods and foodstuffs have disappeared from supermarket shelves—including corn flour—which means that even staples like arepas are now hard to get.

My father would always say that a family that eats together, stays together. It’s been years since I returned home for breakfast, but to me, arepas will always represent happiness and family.

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