I was asked the other day why we celebrate Columbus Day in the United States when it is essentially a Latin American holiday. Of course, I know why—it’s because in finding land on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbus opened up the whole New World. But I also realized she had a point—the initial impact was largely in what we now know as Latin America.
It all began in 1492, when Columbus landed on Hispaniola and encountered a world that was nothing like what he had expected. From the moment he arrived, Columbus and his men were fed by their hosts, and everything they ate was new, unfamiliar, and, on the whole, wonderful. On his second voyage, Columbus brought with him a wide range of seeds, plants, and food animals from Europe. The meeting of the two cuisines would have as big an impact as the meeting of the two cultures. Entirely new cuisines were about to develop.
In the beginning the cuisine was rather rudimentary. The diet of the Indian population in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America was mainly vegetarian, with only occasional fish or wild game, depending on their location. The Indians seemed to have had a folk wisdom about dietary needs that we now recognize, thanks to scientific research. In order to supplement the lack of protein and other nutrients in maize, the Incas planted kidney beans in the same fields as maize, while the Aztecs grew tomatoes instead. This seemed to help regenerate the soil, in addition to providing needed nutrients. Along with corn the Indians ate peppers, beans, tomatoes and squash to achieve a balanced diet. Unfortunately, while the Spanish adopted many of the local foods, they rejected some foods that were essential to the Indian diet in some regions, destroying fields of quinoa of the Incas and amaranth of the Aztecs, mainly to replace them with the less nourishing wheat.
Unlike the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts a century later, the Spanish and Portuguese did not bring women with them. As a result, they relied heavily on Indians for cooking, which led to the blending of European and American foods, as Indian women would have done most of the food preparation. In addition, because they came without wives, the Spanish and Portuguese also blended with the population, as they took Indian women as wives.
When Spanish women finally arrived in the 17th century, Creole cuisine really began to flourish. By this time, some of the American ingredients that had been carried to Europe had already gone through the process of “creolization.” The Spanish women brought sofrito, the perfect Creole sauce made with Spanish onions and garlic, sautéed in olive oil, and adding Indian tomatoes and peppers. This condiment came to season just about every savory dish in the Latin cuisine. The Spanish women also brought the cacao beans converted into one of the most delicious drinks, hot chocolate that became a favorite of colonial hostesses and eventually of the masses.
Arepas are simple corn cakes first made by the Indians of Colombia and Venezuela. They were an important part of their diet, like corn tortillas were to the Aztecs. Over the centuries, the poor people of Colombia and Venezuela continued to use arepas as an inexpensive, easy-to- prepare source of nourishment. Today, these humble corn cakes are a comfort food for rich and poor alike, a heart-warming tribute to simplicity, tradition, versatility, and good taste.
Originally, arepas were made from dried corn kernels, which were soaked overnight in water and lime to remove the skins and then cooked, drained and ground to make into masa (dough), a process very similar to the one used to make the dough for Mexican tortillas. Thanks to modern technology, pre-cooked flour (masa al instante—but note that this is different from the Mexican masa harina) is now available at most Latin American markets. An instant masa can be made by simply mixing this corn flour (either white or yellow) with a little salt and enough hot water to make a stiff dough. The dough is then shaped into flat, round cakes of varying thicknesses depending on the intended use, and cooked on the griddle or deep-fried. In the old days, in Colombia, arepas were cooked on top of a laja, a special flagstone slab, which was first heated and then brushed with fat. The Venezuelan Indians used the aripo, a cooking utensil from which the name arepa was probably derived. Arepas de chócolo are made from fresh corn and cooked on top of banana leaves.
Colombian arepas are generally thinner than their Venezuelan counterparts. The standard Venezuelan arepa looks somewhat like a flat bread roll, crispy on the outside and doughy on the inside. They can be split open and buttered, or spread with cream cheese or fresh goat cheese. Made this way, they are served for breakfast or as an accompaniment for grilled fowl, fish, meat stews, or sausages. A popular snack in Colombia consists of arepas served with fresh cheese and fried chorizo (sausage). Some cooks also make them very thin, like Mexican tortillas; these are wonderful just spread with a little butter. In Venezuela, the doughy inside is sometimes scooped out, and the shell is then filled with savory mixtures of ground or chopped pork, beef, ham, chicken, seafood, vegetables or beans. Prepared in this fashion, they make excellent first courses. The uses are generally limited only by the cook's imagination . Venezuelan mandocas, for example, consist of cheese arepa dough shaped into rings and deep-fried. Another specialty is bollos pelones —balls of arepa dough stuffed with seasoned ground meat, either fried or poached in water, then served with tomato sauce. Colombians and Venezuelans also make tasty soups and dumplings using fresh masa dough or leftover arepas. And finally, let us not forget arepitas dulces (sweet arepas), which are served for dessert.
The versatile arepa indeed proves that unpretentious foods can be not only satisfying, but delicious as well. The recipes for the most popular versions in both countries follow. Click here for the Arepas recipe.