What Are Arepas? Everything You Need To Know About The South American Cornmeal Cake

The first time I had an arepa, my life changed. I was at a restaurant in Crown Heights and ordered two, which came out warm and gooey to the touch. One bite in, and so much flavor and texture filled my mouth: It was crispy and slightly nutty on the outside, but soft and pillowy on the inside, and loaded with meat and cheese. I had to know more about this wonderful dish.
Made from cornmeal, these little cakes are unleavened. “Some would say it’s more like pita bread. Others say it’s like a tortilla,” said Manuel Miranda, founder of Delicias Andinas Food Corporation. “But at the end of the day, it’s a medium for a meal.”

How to prepare

Arepa is a common street food in Venezuela, Colombia, and other parts of South America, but it’s also a dish that can be made at home. Precooked cornmeal is mixed with salt and water until a dough forms. It has to be kneaded the perfect amount—not too little, or it’ll crack and won’t be soft and fluffy in the middle. “You take that sticky paste, put a little oil on your hands, and work it,” Manuel said. “[Then] you take two sheets of plastic and two plates, and squeeze it into a disk.” From there, the cake can be grilled, griddled, or cooked in the oven.

How to enjoy

Francisco Anton, owner of La Ñapa in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (the restaurant that changed my life), was raised in Venezuela and remembers packing arepas for lunch. “Growing up, instead of taking a peanut butter sandwich to school, I took an arepa with ham and cheese,” he said.
Now, his restaurant boasts several different kinds of arepas, all with savory stuffings. It’s a common way to enjoy the cornmeal cakes, called arepas rellenas or stuffed arepas. Francisco’s menu offers one with cheese, or steak, or topped with egg and guacamole, but my personal favorites are the duck confit, chorizo, or smoked brisket. Almost all of them come with homemade mozzarella, made fresh every day.
Arepas that are filled with different savory ingredients are typical, but it’s also common to enjoy them fresh off the griddle, still hot, as a side to a full meal like steak, rice, and eggs.
Manuel prefers to make what he calls an arepa sandwich. “I take two grilled arepas, and I make a skirt steak or New York strip. Then, I put mayonnaise, shredded cheese or queso blanco, and romaine lettuce on the inside,” he said. “And you have to have a really good pico de gallo.”
Arepas are one of those dishes that vary between countries, regions, and even households. Everybody enjoys it differently, whether stuffed or not, but they are best enjoyed hot, fresh, and in good company.

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