The corn cake's origins are up for debate; its deliciousness is definitely not
Latin America’s beloved arepa is a staple and also a blank canvas. You can stuff the flat golden corn cake with shredded beef, black beans, fried sweet plantains, and guayanes cheese, as the Venezuelans do with their classic pabellón. Or, if you have a few hours to nap afterward, try the arepa de huevo, a puffy rendition featuring a fried egg inside that’s native to Colombia’s coastal cities like Cartagena. The arepa isn’t necessarily salty, either: the divine arepa de choclo is a slightly sweet, fresh-corn version oozing with cheese inside. Colombians and Venezuelans have been breaking this versatile bread for centuries. Yet there’s long been a unspoken turf war over which country conceptualized the original arepa. Was it Venezuela, with their thicker, maximalist, and inventive spins on the otherwise plain flatbread? Or is the Colombian arepa—no-frills, thinner, and often topped with salty queso campesino—the one true arepa?
As a Colombian-American, I grew up thinking that arepas were Colombia’s culinary gift to the world. I loved every step of the ritual in preparing arepas with my mom and grandmother: Caking my hands with arepa dough, taking great care to ensure the dough-to-salt-water ratio was just right, shaping them into paunchy balls, carefully flattening on the griddle and, of course, eating them. Yet as I grew older, Venezuelan friends were quick to tell me that not only were their sandwich-like versions of the arepa supreme, but that their country, in fact, had been the genius inventors behind them.
The restaurateur Monica Muzzo, who owns Arepa Factory in New York City, has an anecdote that aptly sums up these very different philosophies on the same bread. “One of my very, very good friends [from Medellín] comes here all the time, and he was telling me about [Colombia’s] bandeja paisa,” Muzzo, who is from Venezuela’s Zulia state, says. “They have, like, 16 types of meats in it... they have pork, sausage. Then I thought to myself: How come nobody thought to put that inside the arepa? Like, why don’t they do that?”
It’s tough to say, and even tougher to know which country originated the corncakes. For one thing, Colombia and Venezuela used to be part of the same country, along with Ecuador and Panama, dubbed the Gran Colombia. It becomes even more complicated when you trace the cornbread family tree outward. Turns out arepas aren’t all that dissimilar from, say, Panama’s tortillas, which are more of a thick corn cake than the ones you might find in a taco. “It’s not that one day, that we know, somebody woke up and made an arepa or tortilla,” says culinary historian, restaurateur and James Beard Award-winning chef Maricel Presilla. “It’s a pre-Columbian thing.”
Presilla says that most of what we know about arepas, in fact, stems from the tools that were used to make them. Indigenous tribes in the pre-Columbian era had a meticulous process for making arepas that involved, for one thing, carefully chewing their staple crop, maize, into a more malleable form. People would then spit the maize out and repeat, until they could compile the mushy kernels into a dough. Or, they would soak the kernels overnight then drain, mash, and massage them into a dough. According to Maria Baez Kijac’s book The South American Table: The Flavor and Soul of Authentic Home Cooking from Patagonia to Rio de Janeiro, arepas in Venezuela were placed in circular clay pans called aripos (where the word arepa is thought to have derived from) and cooked over a fire, whereas in Colombia they were cooked on heated slabs called lajas then brushed with fat.
Yet the elaborate arepas we know today are largely a product of colonization in the 1500s. “All these variations with cheese and all that stuff, it’s European,” Presilla says. “It’s what the Spaniards contributed.” Colonization also brought with it the invention of the pilón, a kind of mortar and pestle made from wood. Arepas became even more of a ubiquitous staple in the 1950s, when a critical invention vastly simplified the process. The Venezuelan engineer Dr. Luis Cabellero Mejías (no relation to my family, I think) had the idea to mechanically treat the cornmeal, resulting in a just-add-water kind of masarepa flour. Masarepa brands like Harina P.A.N. and Goya Masarepa spread, and were soon available at supermarkets everywhere.
Arepas’ popularity stateside, though, is relatively recent. At her East Village culinary outpost, Muzzo serves up Venezuelan regional classics like the reina pepiada, a delectable chicken and avocado salad-stuffed arepa that’s named after Susana Duijm, the first Latina to ever win Miss World in 1955, and the inglesa, a hybridized twist on British fare that features breaded fish, tartar sauce, and watercress. Presilla, who owns the New Jersey restaurants Cucharamama and Zafra, makes several varieties of arepas, including a small one made with anise, an arepa de choclo served with salmon roe and nata (cream), and, of course, a cheesy Colombian coastal variety boasting oodles of queso blanco.
Muzzo and Presilla are introducing arepas to a new culture that, in turn, is further shifting the definitions of the traditional flatbread. “This is not for Venezuelan people,” Muzzo says. “We actually want to introduce the arepa to the American public.” And while the jury’s still out on who invented the arepa, there is a great comfort in the fact that this comfort food—at once beloved and the subject of debate—is marrying these varied traditions together in a new place, no matter whether your preference is to stuff your arepa with goodies or slather them on top instead.