Growing up in Venezuela to a Colombian mother, I had the best of both cultures. We spent a lot of time in Colombia with my grandparents, and the one thing common to the cuisines of both countries, and at the heart of both cultures, is the arepa, the arepa our daily bread.
To call it a corn bread — which it is because the main ingredient is white cornmeal — is to tell only half the story.
Arepa de cazon: stuffed with fish
Arepas are made by mixing Harina PAN, the Venezuelan brand of special cornmeal [also called masarepa] with warm water, salt and oil. You make soft dough that you turn into patties and then bake, fry or grill.
These are the traditional ingredients, but I like to add butter, milk and eggs, which gives them some air, makes them fluffier and, wow, taste so good.
Like a good bun, its made to carry good stuff inside. You create a pocket in the arepa for whatever you dream up [some ideas to follow] by cutting along one side about 180 degrees, sort of like a pita that is going to become a falafel sandwich.
On offer: reina pepiada, chicken, avocado, red onion, cummin, coriander
Someone else who is crazy about arepas, in a deep-in-the-heart, home-sick kind of way, is Eduardo Lee, the designer responsible for Torito’s cool look. Eduardo is Venezuelan, and out of the blue, he called one day to ask if I would like to get involved in a restaurant project. Guess what? He wants to open an Arepa Cafe, which is clearly right up my alley.
Our first plan of action was to put on an Arepa Night, very likely Toronto’s first and only for now. We needed to test our ideas for the arepa itself and the fillings, and we wanted to know what people thought, what they liked best, what were hits and what were misses.
We had excellent results. A happy crowd of Anglo and Latinos gave us rave reviews.
Left to right: Veronica Laudes, Torito owner, Eduardo Lee, “Arepa Cafe” visionary, and Peter Chapman, a guest
We served up three classics: reina pepiada, carne mechada and queso fresco, tomato, avocado and guasacaca.
To finish, I had to do some of my sweet favourites: chocolate truffles with chipotle and guava; and baked sweet plantain with queso fresco, wild flower honey and roasted pistachios, below
If all goes according to plan, Eduardo will open Arepa Cafe in Kensington this November.
Yours in good food, great arepas and new beginnings
Arepa Cafe poster, design by Eduardo Lee
Harina PAN is available in white and yellow corn varieties. It’s easily digested, contains no additives and is perfect for gluten-free diets.