Let’s make Venezuelan Arepas!!!!
Since my arrival in Lima last year, I’ve met people from several other countries and been exposed to cultures very different from my own. One of my favorites parts of this opportunity is learning about their foods and traditions. Shortly after my arrival in Lima, a friend introduced me to Venezuelan arepas at local restaurant, and I was immediately enchanted with the food, particularly the arepa!!!
This past week, my friend, Nhai, from Venezuela shared her arepa making techniques. Now, I am sharing with you what I learned about Venezuelan arepas and how to cook them up. In addition, Nhai and I experimented with some non-traditional Venezuelan arepas variations as well which I will show you how to make.
Arepas are a type of dough made using pre-cooked corn flour that are super easy to make and a pretty healthy alternative to bread. Arepas are an integral part of the cuisine of both Colombia and Venezuela. However, the recipe and appearance are wildly different in each country.
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What’s the difference?
Venezuelan arepas are made only with harina de maiz or corn flour, water and salt. The size of the arepa is much larger and thicker than the Colombian version. Since they are larger, it makes them easier to stuff with all sorts of yummy ingredients. So, it ends up being more like a sandwich than the Colombian arepa. Most commonly the arepa is consumed by Venezuelans as a snack or an accompaniment to a meal.
The Colombian arepa is smaller and thinner and the recipe generally includes a fat of some sort, traditionally lard or butter but they can also be made with oil. Since they are smaller you usually eat them as a side though you can also top them with various toppings as an alternative to stuffing them.
What is harina de maiz?
Harina de maiz or corn flour is the main ingredient for the arepas in both countries. The flour is made by immersing the whole corn kernels in water with lime and calcium. This process makes it easier to remove the outer skin. Once the skin is removed, the remainder is dried and ground. The process actually concentrates the nutrients in the masa.
Corn flour VS whole kernel corn
Nutrient comparison is based ¼ cup of corn and ¼ cup of masa (the amount in one Venezuelan arepa)
|Corn Flour||vs||Corn Kernels|
|Carbohydrates||22 g||7.8 g|
|Fiber||1.8 g||.9 g|
|Protein||2.4 g||1.3 g|
|Fat||1.1 g||.6 g|
|Calcium||39.3 mg||1 mg|
|Iron||.4 mg||.2 mg|
|Zinc||.5 mg||.2 mg|
|Vitamin C||0||2.05 mg|
**Information from the USDA Nutrient Database
As you can see in the comparison above, the corn flour wins out in providing more of some nutrients than a ¼ cup of corn. Though it comes at a bit of a cost as the arepas are slightly higher in calories. However, the additional protein, fiber and other nutrients may be worth it. Also, you may enjoy the arepa more than a quarter cup of corn, and the additional protein and fiber may help to promote greater satiety.
One nutrient in particular though where the corn definitely wins out is vitamin C. Unfortunately, the corn flour is completely absent of providing this nutrient whereas whole kernel corn does provide some. In order to solve this dilemma, consider adding in vegetables to the arepa to help to boost this nutrient or others.
Alternatives to the traditional arepa
In addition to making traditional Venezuelan arepas with the masa, you can also add in other ingredients. First, adding in vegetables to the masa creates a variety of different eye appealing colors. In addition, some vegetables add a bit of flavor, change the texture and even add more nutrients to the arepas.
You can use butternut or kabocha squash, sweet potato, yucca, beets, carrots or other similar vegetables. For our tests, Nhai and I tried out the a squash similar to kabocha, sweet potato, yucca and beets.
These vegetables all boost different nutrients. Keep in mind, that you aren’t adding a ton of these vegetables to the arepa dough, so while you are making improvements, they may be small. But I believe small alterations and changes add up through the day so I still think it’s a win.
I give you estimated ratios of the vegetable to arepa dough that we added. Keep in mind that you can add as much as you want. If the dough gets too sticky you can always add a bit more masa to get it back to the desired consistency. Also, be sure to taste the dough after adding in the vegetables as you may need adjust the salt just a bit.
A good source of vitamin C providing 22 mg per ½ cup serving of yucca. Yucca is also a good source of manganese and is an antioxidant thanks to the anthoxanthins, provided by the white pigment, it contains.
The yucca is pretty thick and doesn’t affect the consistency of the dough as much as some of the other ingredients. We used a ratio of 1:2 yucca to arepa dough. I didn’t find that the yucca altered the taste of the arepa, but it definitely made the arepa a bit stickier on the inside. But I love yucca and this vegetable add-in was certainly one of my favorites.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A. The orange color of the carotene in the sweet potato provides this benefit as the body can convert the carotene into vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential to the health of the eyes. In addition, sweet potatoes provide vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and many others.
The sweet potato was one of our favorites out of the different flavors we made. It does add a bit of sweetness and you could definitely taste the sweet potato flavor in the cooked arepa. The sweet potato is also pretty thick and didn’t affect the arepa dough too much. I would estimate that we use a ratio of 1:3 of potato to arepa dough. Also, keep in mind that the more sweet potato you add makes the orange color more vibrant.
Beets are a good source of many nutrients including folate, vitamin C and antioxidants. They also contain nitrates and the natural colors which may help to lower blood pressure.
The beet was our favorite for the vibrant pink color the beets contributed to the arepa. However, the beets have a strong earthy flavor which contributed a strong flavor to the arepa. If you don’t like beets, it is likely that you won’t like this one at all. The beet puree we used was pretty wet and so we used a ratio of 1:4 beets to arepa dough. After mixing it in, we definitely needed to add more masa to get the consistency back.
Winter squashes provide a variety of nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin B6, C, magnesium, potassium and more. They add a yellowish color to the arepa which may vary depending on the variety of squash you use. I used a variety of squash or pumpkin available here in Peru that is quite yellow in color and is most similar to kabocha squash. If you use butternut or another variety with a more orange color, the color of the arepa may appear more orange as well.
The variety of squash I used contains a lot of liquid. So, it’s hard to say how much you will be able to add. You can evaluate the consistency of your squash puree to the other ingredients listed above and use the ratio that matches most closely.
Preparing the extra ingredients to add
No matter which ingredients you choose, they need to be cooked ahead of time and then pureed or mashed so they will mix in more easily.
For the beets and sweet potatoes, I simply wrapped them in some foil and baked in the oven at 400 degrees F for about an hour or until they were softened. Once they are done, allow them to cool and then remove the skin.
The sweet potatoes easily mashed with a fork in a bowl or you can also do them in a food processor.
The beets were a bit more challenging. I first put them in the food processor but was unable to get them fine enough so then I placed them in a blender and added a bit of water and then pureed them to a fairly smooth consistency. Add just enough water to get the blender to efficiently puree the beets.
The squash and yucca were boiled on top of the stove until tender. After draining off the excess water and cooled, I placed them in a food processor and pureed until smooth.
How to fill or eat your finished arepas
How you decide to eat your Venezuelan arepas is totally up to you. You can stuff them or simply eat them like a piece of bread alongside the rest of your meal.
Of course, there are many popular variations and traditional ways of eating Venezuelan arepas that contain sausage, chicken or other types of meat. But since I like to focus on more plant-based eating, I am sharing with you traditional vegetarian options and then my favorite non-traditional ways of eating them.
There is also this super yummy sauce called Guasacaca which I first tasted at a Venezuelan restaurant here in Lima. It is made with avocado, parsley, cilantro, vinegar and a few other ingredients. You can get the full recipe here but it makes an excellent sauce to serve with your arepa and I especially like it with the yucca one!!!
The Domino, featuring black beans and white cheese gets its name because it is black and white just like a domino.
The vegetarian options of Venezuelan arepas…
This arepa version is best for breakfast and is filled with scrambled eggs, tomato, onion.
This is my personal favorite!!! Though I like to add in a bit of avocado to it as well. It gets it’s name from the black and white domino game since it is filled with black beans and white cheese. In the absence of finding traditional Venezuelan cheese, I substituted mozzarella cheese with good results.
Maybe you like it super simple and prefer your arepa without a filing. In this case, it’s usually served alongside another dish. My favorite is with fried eggs at breakfast or a bowl of beans or soup.
This arepa is the breakfast version El Perico with scrambled eggs, tomato, onion and then in addition some delicious cooked black beans.
Switch out the white cheese in the La Domino with gouda cheese and add in avocado to enjoy this delicious arepa.
But eating arepas is flexible
I think that in addition to the more traditional styles of stuffed Venezuelan arepas you can top or stuff your arepas with your favorite ingredients. You can think of the arepa as a piece of bread, and so you can top it or fill it up as you want. Since corn doesn’t contain gluten, the arepa is naturally gluten-free.
Some of my favorite ways to eat them include:
- Avocado or guacamole with white cheese
- Melted cheese
- Hummus with lettuce, tomato and red onion
- Roasted eggplant spread with spinach, red peppers and red onion
- Chickpea and avocado salad
- Sliced tomato, basil and mozzarella
Begin by shaping dough into a ball. Slowly flatten out and round off edges.
Traditional Venezuelan Arepas
- 2 cups masa harina
- 2 ½ cups water
- 1 tsp salt
Making the dough
- Place water and salt in a mixing bowl. And stir to dissolve the salt.
- Add 1 cup of masa and stir to combine. Then add half of the remaining masa and mix. Add the last of the masa and mix it together.
- At this point you will likely need to begin working the dough with your hands. After you have mixed the dough well, if it still feels a bit sticky, allow it to sit for few minutes. It will absorb more of the water into the flour. ;;
- The dough is ready to shape into arepas when it is firmer and less sticky. To begin shaping the arepas, wet your hands with clean water and take a ball of dough (about ¼-1/3 cup) and begin to roll it in the palm of your hands.
- Once you get a round ball, you can begin flattening the dough ball as you move it around using just the palm of your hands. It should be about ¼” thick and the edges should be smoothly round.
- It is best to form the arepas as you are ready to cook as they don’t hold their shape if you make ahead and try to transfer to the cooking pan.
Cooking the arepas
- First wipe a skillet (preferably non-stick) with a bit of oil and put it over medium heat.
- Allow the pan to fully heat up before adding the arepas.
- Once the pan is hot, add the arepas to the pan and cook without moving them in the pan. Reduce the heat to medium low and you can cover the pan with a lid to help the arepas cook a bit longer (5 to 7 minutes).
- Flip the arepas over when lightly brown and allow them to cook on the other side for about the same amount of time.
- You may need to turn them several times cooking for an additional few minutes until the are done. The best way to tell if the arepa is done inside is to tap it, it will make a thumping sound.
Nhai’s tips for successful Venezuelan arepas
♦Start the mixing process with water and salt first so that the salt dissolves in the water and is more evenly dispersed throughout the dough.
♦To shape the arepas it is important to use just the palm of your hand and lightly wet the palm to keep the dough from sticking. It takes practice making them to get the perfect round shape.
♦In order to cook the arepas, heat the pan up first. Once the pan is hot, add the arepas and allow them to cook for 5-7 minutes before turning them the first time. The size of the pan matters. The larger the pan, the more arepas you can cook at one time, thus cutting down on the length of time it takes to prepare the arepas.
♦Covering the pan with a lid helps the arepas cook a little bit faster.
♦The trick to knowing when the arepas is done is to tap it with your fingers. It should make a hollow, thumping sound when it is ready. You can listen in the video below for the sound the arepa makes when it is ready.
Serving size is one arepa. Venezuelan arepas are relatively low in calories and fat. It provides slightly less fiber and protein than a slice of whole wheat bread, but is a suitable nutritious substitute for something a little bit different. Also, remember that an arepa is also gluten-free so it can be eaten by those with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. Just be sure to check the package of the masa you use to make sure it isn’t manufactured in a location that also processes wheat as there may be some cross contamination.
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