Made in its simplest form from corn flour, salt and water, the humble arepa has been a household staple in its native Venezuela for many generations. The sandwich-like snack consists of two halves – firm and crunchy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside – most often filled with pulled pork, black beans or chicken and generous servings of cheese and avocado.
Australians can get their hands on one at a band of lively Latin American restaurants (more on those later), however the most joyful arepa experience might be found at weekend markets, where sizzling golden patties – grilled, baked or fried – are being eaten up by locals looking for tasty (gluten-free) nosh to go, as well as a throng of South American expats with a taste for nostalgia.
Down at Glebe Markets in Sydney, Arepas Australia’s pink, yellow and green arepas have been a big hit with hungry weekenders. “In Venezuela you’ll find them at any time of any day in every house,” says owner Ybrahim Camero. “It can be more of a breakfast dish, but if you go out partying at night, everyone will get an arepa afterwards.”
When Ybrahim came to Australia with his wife Gilda eight years ago, the pair began making hallacas, a Venezuelan Christmas dish also made with corn flour. After gaining a loyal following, they saw the need to offer a product that wasn’t seasonal and began to make arepas. “The beauty of arepas is that they’re so versatile,” he says. At their first stall in June the pair hoped to sell 100 arepas and ending up dishing out 150. “The response has been amazing,” he says.
The colourful arepas were inspired by a trick Gilda used when the couple’s two daughters wouldn’t eat their veggies. “She’d mix carrot into the dough, so the arepas looked beautiful and the kids ate lots of carrots!”, he says. Beetroot juice is used for the pink arepas and the green ones, the best sellers, are made with kale and coriander.
While the focus is on hallacas in December, the arepas will be back after Christmas. “You can go from the poorest home to the richest one and on Christmas Day they all eat hallacas. For the rest of the year it’s arepas,” says Ybrahim.
Venezuelan-born Andres Rodriguez, who runs Bondi-based Arepa, agrees with this sentiment. “Arepas are really close to people’s hearts in Colombia and Venezuela,” he says. Moving to Australia after high school nine years ago with his best mate Alberto, Andres began whipping up arepas for friends at home. After a long time playing with the idea of starting a business, in July Arepa set up shop at The Brewery Yard Markets where they serve the beloved fare along with salsa and sugarcane lemonade, or papelón con limón.
It seems the street is the place to start for arepas, with life as a pop-up often leading to bricks-and-mortar as it did for Perth’s Angel Falls Grill. Venezuelan expats Gilda Cariello and Sergio Yibrin conceived the idea four years ago but wanted to test the waters before opening their restaurant in May. “We decided to start cooking in hawker markets around Perth,” says Sergio, who ran food stalls at Maylands, Subiaco and Mount Hawthorn markets.
Passionate about the arepa as an icon of sharing, family, friendship and heritage, Sergio believes it can bring people together – especially those from his home country. “If you want to meet Venezuelan people in a particular city, you just need to Google “arepa” and the city where you are,” he says.
If it’s the city of Melbourne you happen to be in, an abundance of street food and gourmet back lanes could increase your chances of finding an areperia – but one with the city’s famed coffee to match? On Fitzroy’s historic Gertrude Street, Sonido is a classic Melbourne café with a South American twist.
A few years earlier to the party, Colombian couple Santiago Villamizar and Carolina Talero opened shop in 2010 with little experience in hospitality but plenty of passion for arepas and high quality coffee. “At the time there were no cafés or restaurants doing arepas in Melbourne,” says Carolina. The focus here is on authenticity, with arepas made from scratch by cooking the whole corn grain then grinding it to make dough.
While we wouldn’t call arepas a guilty pleasure, Queensland’s multi-venue Comuna Cantina has put a wholesome spin on the Latin-inspired dish to make it a more frequent option. “The menu is slightly fresher and healthier than the typical street food options,” says owner Tim Johnson. Expect chargrilled meats, prawns or roast veggies with emphasis on fresh herbs, guacamole and salsas – sans cheese.
For homemade arepas white corn flour is the traditional choice, with Colombian made P.A.N. found in the kitchens of many arepa sellers as well as the shelves of specialty supermarkets. “Nowadays, the techniques and processes of making arepas are still the same,” says Sergio, “But the industrialisation of this process has made this product available for more people not only in Venezuela, but around the world.”
There is an astounding array of arepas (corn cakes) available across South America, from the Colombian versions, which are thinner and wider, cooked on a griddle and topped with a range of ingredients, to this Venezuelan version. It consists of thicker arepas, which are halved and then layered with fillings, in a similar way to a sandwich.
Arepas are a common snack food or starter served at Venezuelan restaurants or street stalls, known as areperias. They are small round fried cornbreads, which can be stuffed with a variety of fillings, from simple cheeses to slow-cooked meats.
In Venezuela, arepas often take the place of bread and are eaten throughout the entire day. Arepas can be topped with butter and your preferred spread, served with eggs or filled and eaten like a sandwich. Here we’ve used raspberry jam.
This Colombian snack food consists of a cornmeal patty cooked in a frying pan and served simply with butter and salt or with any number of fillings. Split the arepas open and fill with avocado, cheese, tomato, meat, fried chicken, beans or salsa. Or try the "arepa pizza" where chorizo, cheese and spicy chicken or beef strips are used as a topping rather than a filling. In northern Colombia, fried egg arepas are a favourite – the egg is fried into the patty. Arepas are also a good accompaniment to main meals.