An arepa is a bread-like dish derived from corn that looks a lot like an English muffin. It's crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and perfect for stuffing with just about anything, from avocado to scrambled eggs to ham and cheese. Nowadays, with the help of store-bought cornmeal, arepas can be whipped together in just a few minutes and require only a few ingredients like oil, salt, and water. Aside from being ridiculously easy to make, they're filled with tons of protein and gut-friendly fiber to make this dish the perfect way to start your day. Or, frankly, to munch on at lunch, dinner, dessert, snacktime...you get the gist.
What makes arepas so good?
Although arepas can be found in other parts of the world like Colombia and areas of Central America, Venezuelan arepas are distinctly different due to their size, color, and cooking method. Unlike other iterations, Venezuelan arepas are slightly puffed in the center (not a completely flat disk, like Colombian arepas) and are made with white cornmeal as opposed to yellow. They are also typically grilled or seared and then baked at high temperatures—depending on their thickness—until cooked through, rather than fried.
Key Venezuelan arepas ingredients
When making this dish at home, my go-to ingredient is Harina P.A.N., a pre-cooked white cornmeal flour that’s naturally gluten-free, vegan, high in fiber, and can be shipped right to your doorstep via Amazon (a two-pound bag retails for less than $3!). In each serving of the cornmeal—which is roughly one arepa—you can find almost six percent of your daily value of dietary fiber and about two grams of protein. Compared to regular white bread, arepas rank much higher in nutritional value and can be used to substitute it in almost any dish. Think of an arepa as your new sandwich-making BFF, with even more fiber, flavor, and crunch. Who could say no?
How to make arepas
When making arepas, the key is perfecting the dough, which really is no sweat when using pre-cooked cornmeal. First, you’ll want to ensure your dough is clump-free and homogenous. To do so, you’ll want to slowly combine your wet and dry ingredients while continuously mixing with your hands—yes, you’ll get your hands a little dirty, but the result is a smooth dough ready for forming into arepas. During this step, you’ll combine salted lukewarm water with the cornmeal until the liquid is completely absorbed after lightly kneading it together with your palms to form a large ball. From there, you’ll portion out the dough to form individual arepas about the size of a large mandarin orange.
Once your arepas are fully formed, you’ll gently pat them down to form a small disk that’s slightly higher in the center. The arepas are then grilled or seared on a skillet or a cast-iron budare (a traditional Venezuelan cooking plancha) to create the signature and hard-to-resist crunchy crust. To ensure the center is fully cooked, the arepas can be baked at high temperatures directly on the rack for a few minutes before serving hot.
How do you eat Venezuelan arepas?
Once your arepas are fully cooked, you'll want to allow them to cool slightly. The inside will be piping hot. After a few minutes, once you're able to comfortably handle the arepa, using a knife, carefully slice through the center to create a pocket. From there, you can stuff it with what you'd like. But in order to fill the arepa with as many tasty fillings as possible, you may want to consider removing a bit of the dough from the inside to give yourself some more room. (Pro tip: Save the excess filling and add a pat of butter to snack on. It's delicious on its own, too.)
What do you eat with Venezuelan arepas?
Now comes the best part: the fillings. Just like a sandwich, the options are endless. You can keep it simple and add your favorite vegan cheese and call it a day, or get creative and add baked sweet plantains, beans, and avocado slices for a nutrient-packed lunch. However, my favorite combination is reina pepiada, a protein-packed chicken and avocado salad. Other popular Venezuelan-style fillings for arepas include pabellón, which is a play on popular Caribbean-style rice and beans. In the arepa variation, you'll find a combination of shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and Paisa cheese, a type of fresh white cheese (aka, queso blanco).
Although arepas can be consumed during breakfast, lunch, or dinner, if you're noshing on them early in the day, a perico filling might be your best bet. It calls for hearty breakfast staple ingredients like scrambled eggs, tomatoes, and onions. But if you want to make your arepa meal complete, Venezuelans will say you'll need to get some nata, a spreadable cream sauce that's similar to sour cream, a glass of chicha, a rice-derived sweet milk drink, and a few tequeños, which are fried, breaded cheese sticks filled with queso blanco. Oh, and you can't forget the vegan empanadas. Okay, it's safe to say I'm officially drooling.
Venezuelan-style arepa recipe
Yields 8 servings
1 Tbsp kosher salt
2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 cups pre-cooked, white cornmeal
2 Tbsp neutral oil
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the salt and lukewarm water, and stir until dissolved.
2. Slowly add the cornmeal while continuously stirring with fingertips, making sure to break down any lumps. Lightly knead the dough with your palms until solid enough to form a large ball. The mixture should be soft but not stick to your fingers. Let it rest for a few minutes before shaping.
3. To form the arepas, portion the dough into mandarin-shaped balls. Then, apply pressure to flatten the ball and form a disk that’s slightly thicker in the center and tapers out towards the edges. It should be about three and a half inches in diameter and about one centimeter thick.
4. Grease a skillet with oil, and place over medium heat. Once hot, gently place the arepas in the pan, ensuring they do not touch one another. Avoid moving them in the pan, and cook each side for five to seven minutes or until a golden-brown crust forms.
5. Remove from the skillet and place the arepas directly on your oven racks and bake for four to five minutes or until the arepas are slightly puffed and cooked through. Give them a gentle tap with your fingertips to tell if they're ready—it should sound hollow and empty.
6. Once cool enough to handle, slice the arepas open with a knife and fill with your favorite toppings.
Chicken avocado salad recipe (reina pepiada)
Yields 4 servings
1 cooked chicken breast
2 medium avocados, cubed
1/2 cup yellow onion, small diced
5 Tbsp mayonnaise (or vegan mayonnaise)
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Shred the chicken and transfer it to a large bowl. Mix in all of the remaining ingredients and stir until well combined.
2. Serve on their own or use as an arepa filling.
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