The first time I went to Colombia, my not-yet-wife warned me that I'd be eating arepas. A whole lot of them. What she didn't prepare me for was the baffling array of styles they come in. If you're like I was back then, you hear the word arepa, and you think "Oh, it's that Venezuelan/Colombian corn cake, right?" And you probably have an image in your mind of a thick tortilla.
But to think in that narrow scope is the equivalent of a Colombian native hearing about bread and saying, "Oh, it's that European wheat cake, right?" Within the first three days alone, I sampled over a dozen different varieties of arepa. The most basic in the Bogotá region are made with starchy white corn flour pressed into cakes about 1/4-inch thick, then griddled or grilled until cooked through, and served with butter, cheese, or hogao, a cooked mixture of onions and tomato.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. You'll find arepas stuffed with cheese and baked on hot stones in coal-fired ovens. Arepas with sour milk cheese worked right into the dough. Arepas de choclo, made like a pancake with sweet corn on a hot griddle. Arepas de huevo, golden yellow deep-fried puffy arepas split open and stuffed with an egg. Tiny arepitas eaten as a snack. Even packages of arepa-flavored corn chips. Move out of Colombia into Venezuela, and you'll find thicker arepas split open and stuffed with fillings ranging from cheese and beans to pork or shrimp.
It's a wide, wide world out there, but we've got to start somewhere, so today we'll focus on four common arepa varieties, all made with the same basic dough.
Basic Grilled or Griddled Arepas
Traditionally, arepas are made by soaking and pounding dried corn in a pilón—a large mortar and pestle. The moist pounded dough would then be shaped into cakes and cooked. These days, most folks buy pre-cooked, dehydrated masarepa—arepa flour—that only needs to be mixed with water and salt to form a dough. Masarepa is pretty widely available in the United States (check the latin aisle of your supermarket: Goya, PAN, and Areparina are popular brands). It comes in both yellow and white varieties. I usually use the white masarepa.
Making arepa dough takes a bit of practice, but if you've ever made tortillas, you're off to a good start. The key is to use only as much moisture as is necessary to get a dough that doesn't crack when you shape it. Too much water and you'll end up with dense, gummy arepas. The simplest arepas use only water and salt, but I find a bit of oil helps to keep them softer and moisture as they cook.
The actual amount of water you'll need depends on the brand of masarepa you use, but a good basic rule of thumb is to start with a 1 to 1 ratio (by volume), then add more water as necessary. I add about a half teaspoon of kosher salt and a half teaspoon of oil per cup of masarepa and water.
This is about the right amount. After adding your water and salt, let the dough sit covered with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap for five minutes or so to make sure that it's fully hydrated, then add more water if it still feels dry.
Shaping an arepa is a two-handed process. If you're a real expert, you can do it without a work surface, simply pressing it back and forth between your hands until it forms a disk about 1/4-inch thick and 4 to 6 inches wide. I find it easier to shape on a cutting board, using one hand to flatten and the other to shape.
Once the arepas are formed, there are a few cooking options. A grill pan or actual grill are great, as is a flat, lightly buttered skillet (use cast iron or non-stick). Even easier is a panini press.
Whatever method you use, the key is low, slow heat. You want to cook slowly in order to drive off excess moisture from the interior as the exterior gets slowly browned. A well-made arepa should take at least ten to fifteen minutes to cook.
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Want to take your arepas to the next level?* Try adding some cheese directly to the dough.
Young Colombian cheese tend to be slightly sour and have a relatively high melting point, which is necessary when you incorporate it into the arepa dough. You don't want it to melt all over the place while you cook.
If you can find traditional Colombian farmer's cheese, feta, cotija, ricotta salata, or even a relatively young Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano will work (if using the latter two, cut the amount called for in half).
After that, forming the arepas and cooking them is exactly the same.
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Cheese-Stuffed Thick Arepas
Even more intense than basic cheesy arepas are arepas made with a thick layer of melty cheese stuffed right into the middle. I first had these at an outdoor stand in the small town of La Calera, about an hour's ride outside of Bogotá. They were cooked on a little rotating stone pedestal near an open coal fire. Smoky, cheesy, and delicious.
The key to forming them is to create to larger arepas, stuff the cheese in the middle...
...carefully seal up the edges...
...then use your hands to shape them into an even round.
Because they tend to be thicker than standard arepas and you need the cheese to be melty, I find that finishing them in a toaster oven (or on the cooler side of the grill if you're grilling them) is the easiest way to go about it.
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While in Colombia you're far more likely to see wide, thin arepas made with toppings, in Venezuela, arepas tend to be thicker, with fillings sandwiched into them after splitting. The method for making these arepas rellenas (stuffed arepas) is pretty much exactly the same, though they are thicker so will need even more gentle cooking to cook through without burning on the exterior.
This is best accomplished by starting them in a skillet, then finishing them in an oven.
The simplest filling is a bit of shredded or sliced cheese, most commonly Guayanés, a soft, slightly sour fresh cheese similar to low-moisture mozzarella (you can use mozzarella if you'd like). Waxy-fleshed avocados similar to the fuerte cultivar we find in the U.S. (not to be confused with the creamy Hass avocado) are also a common filling, as is shredded chicken, black beans, chicharrón (crispy pork skin), shredded stewed beef, or cuts of grilled beef.
The version I have here is my own take on arepas rumberas—"Party Arepas," so-called because they're the kind of thing you want to eat after a night of drinking a bit too much cerveza and aguardiente. Made with pork shoulder stewed in stock with roasted chiles and onions, it's topped with cilantro and dry crumbled fresh cheese (you can use Mexican queso fresco, queso blanco, or even feta).
Traditional? No. Delicious? That's a big si.
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