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Thursday, April 12, 2007 01:58 am

A sandwich by any other name

Easy and fun to make, arepas are a great alternative

Untitled Document What’s a nice guy from Venezuela doing in Springfield? Well, among other things, he’s making arepas. Félix Cabrera moved to Springfield from Venezuela five years ago with his wife, Ana, and two sons, Santiago and Bernardo. Cabrera came here in conjunction with his family’s business, a commodity-brokerage firm. They also have offices in Florida and Caracas, dealing with a variety of foods, including lentils and peas. The commodities that brought Félix here, however, are — what else? — corn and soybeans. The Cabreras weren’t exactly strangers to the Midwest. Félix’s brother got his master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign many years ago, and Félix visited him there several times. Ana, an architect with Melotte-Morse-Leonatti, has relatives in Ottawa.
Outgoing and personable, Félix also teaches Spanish at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he enthusiastically tells his students about arepas. Arepas are considered the national food of Venezuela, taking the place of bread in the daily diet. They are made of precooked corn flour that is similar to the masa harina used to make Mexican corn tortillas and tamales. Masa harina is somewhat different, however, because it has been precooked in an alkali solution to remove the outer layer, a process called nixtamalization, giving it a different taste and texture. The culture and culinary heritage of Venezuela are more straightforwardly Spanish than those of many other Latin American countries, mainly because the indigenous population at the time of colonization was very small and primitive. Even so, native foods, especially corn, became prominent in the Venezuelan diet. Arepas may have originated as a staple food of poor natives, but they’re now eaten by everyone. After hearing Félix describe Venezuelan arepas I wanted to try them, so on my last trip to New York (and on Félix’s recommendation), I went to the Caracas Arepa Bar. I’d had arepas in Colombian restaurants before, but they’re quite different, more like a thicker corn tortilla. The Venezuelan versions are fat little patties, crispy on the outside and creamy inside. They can be eaten plain or split and filled with myriad ingredients. The Caracas Arepa Bar offers some 20 combinations. I tried two, one with grilled chicken, chorizo, and avocado and the other with shredded beef, black beans, salty cheese, and sweet plantains. Both were absolutely delicious.
Back in Springfield, Félix and his charming mother, Victoria, visiting from Venezuela, made arepas for his Spanish class. Félix split and filled his with cheese and chorizo, but Victoria made a wonderfully different sweet fried version. The thin discs of corn dough were puffed into little pillows, crispy on the outside and hollow on the inside, light, not at all heavy or greasy, and sweet without being cloying. Arepas are easy, fun to make, and a great sandwich variation. They’re an especial boon to anyone with a wheat allergy. The Caracas Arepa Bar’s Web site, www.caracasarepabar.com, includes a short video from a New York television morning program that demonstrates the preparation of griddled and baked arepas. It varies slightly from the Cabreras’ recipe, supplied below, but, having eaten both, I couldn’t tell any difference between them.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups Venezuelan corn flour  
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the water in a medium bowl, then add the salt, and stir to dissolve it. Whisk in the corn flour until completely combined, then knead the dough until smooth. You may need to add a little more water or corn flour to make a smooth, pliable dough. It should not be crumbly (too dry) or sticky (too wet). Form the dough into patties about 4 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Place each patty on a heated griddle or skillet and cook until one side is lightly browned and crisped, then carefully flip it over and cook the other side until it is also browned and crisp.
Put the patties on a baking sheet and bake them in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Arepas can be eaten plain (with or without butter) or split open and filled like a pita pocket. The most common fillings are crumbled fresh or shredded cheese and chorizo sausage, though there are countless other options, singly or in combination: meats such as shredded beef or pork, chicken, fish, or even deli-style meats; grilled or sautéed vegetables such as eggplant and peppers, caramelized onions, black beans, avocado, or even fried plantains. This recipe yields about eight arepas.
Arepas Dulces (Sweet Arepa Fritters)
2 cups lukewarm water 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup molasses or pure dark cane syrup 2 teaspoons ground anise seeds 2 cups Venezuelan corn flour Oil for deep-frying Crumbled queso fresco (fresh cheese) for garnish, optional
Put the water in a bowl and add the salt, sugar, molasses, or cane syrup and stir to dissolve it. Add the anise seed and flour and form the dough as described above. Form into discs about 1/4 inch thick and 5 or 6 inches in diameter. Heat 1 to 2 inches oil in a deep pot or skillet (for safety, the oil should come no more than halfway up the pan) until the oil is hot but not smoking. Carefully slip in as many arepas as will comfortably fit. It is important to not overcrowd them. The arepas will quickly puff up. Fry until the undersides are golden brown, then carefully flip the patties over and fry until the other side is also browned. Carefully remove an arepa from the oil and immediately drape it over two knives, spoons, or spatulas, folding it in half without deflating the two sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately, sprinkling with cheese if desired. The recipe yields about eight arepas.
Venezuelan corn flour (the locally available brand is P.A.N.) can be found at Artina International Grocery Store, 614 E. North Grand Ave (217-523-4050). Queso fresco can be found at Meijers.
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