Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Arepa to Remember

I fell in love with arepas in Caracas, in 1989. Venezuelan arepas are like little buns made of cornmeal, and in Caracas they're ubiquitous. Little joints all over the city serve arepas stuffed with all sorts of things. The arepa is the sandwich bread of choice.

Traditionally skillet-cooked, arepas are now often cooked in a special device that's sort of like a waffle iron. A ball of cornmeal is placed in one of the slots, and a perfectly shaped arepa is cooked on both sides. The arepa is a wonder of taste and texture. A crunchy exterior encases the soft, moist, deliciously corny interior, which is the perfect vehicle for hot or cold stuffings.

Getting a world-class arepa in Manhattan is as easy as pie. The Caracas Arepa Bar, on East 7th Street, just east of First Avenue, has 14 kinds on the menu, and on weekends there are additional specials. It was a special that made my day last Sunday, the arepa de estofado llanero. According to the menu, "Estofado" (stew) is a dish that was brought to Venezuela by the Spanish colonizers but it disappeared by the end of the 19th Century. Our arepa version is made with oxtail that was cooked for hours with cloves, ginger & molasses for the aroma as well as tomatoes and red wine to concentrate the flavors. It comes with a layer of sweet plantains... It is one of a kind special..." Llanero, I learned, literally means "plainsman," and it is the name for cowboys in Venezuela and Colombia. My cowboy stew was absolutely delicious, with a complexity of flavor and an earthiness that married so well with its arepa shell. Indeed, the stew had a veritable communion with the cornmeal center. You can keep posted on the next appearance of estofado llanero, as Caracas Arepa Bar lists the weekend specials on their website.

The other thing I fell in love with in Caracas was queso Guayanes, a mild white cheese that's soft, moist, creamy and slightly salty. I could say it's like a cross between farmer cheese and mozzarella, but that doesn't do it justice; it's more complex than that. Despite the name, it seems to be a Venezuelan specialty, and I haven't found out whether it really is Guyanese in origin*. Queso Guayanes is a common arepa filling in Venezuela, and Caracas Arepa Bar uses it as an ingredient in several variations. This time I tried the "del gato," which has fried plantains and avocado as well as queso Guayanes. The owner told me once that they get their cheese from a supplier in Miami.

Caracas Arepa Bar also makes empanadas. The Venezuelan empanada is also cornmeal-based, and it's deep fried. The empanada de cazon (shark) is especially good. A couple of arepas or an arepa and an empanada is usually sufficient for a meal.

* Note: Thanks to a reader (see comment), the origin of queso Guayanes has been clarified. The name comes from a region in southeastern Venezuela.

Caracas Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Being a Venezuelan living abroad you post really made me miss areperas ... you have made a wonderful description of them. I just wanted comment on two things: One, you wrote "Arepas are usually cooked in a special arepa maker that's sort of like a waffle iron". This is not completely accurate as this is sort of an innovation and I dare to say that it is the less common way to make arepas. In most areperas and homes they are made by hand. The corn meal is balled up and then flattened by hand. Later they are cook over a "budare" which is some kind of flat skillet and then some times they are place in the oven to crisp them up and make the puff some ... and don't make me go into my mother's "girasador".
The other thing, is about queso Guayanes. It is indeed a Venezuelan thing. The name comes from the southeastern part of the country (you can see more here There is even a city called "Ciudad Guayana" and that's where this cheese gets its name. I don't know if you tried "queso telita" (literally, little fabric cheese). It's somewhat similar to Guayanes and it comes from the same general region, specially froma city called Upata in the outskirts of the Amazonian jungle. The name telita (little fabric) refer to its consistency, which is like many, many thin layers that you can almost separate (like a stack of fabrics that you could flip through).
But again, thanks for the post. It was a random treat thanks to Google alerts.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Thanks so much for that detailed comment. I've updated the piece to encompass several of your clarifications.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Brian Olewnick said...

Pete, Linda and I went there this evening with my niece. Great spot! Thanks for the point. Had the del gato, yummy, and the special of the day, an herbed squid concoction, also excellent. Loved the chicha (a cold rice drink with cinnamon and the bienmesabe for dessert which was amazing. Great coffee as well. Good catch!

9:13 PM  

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