Is arepa a sandwich, a burger, a pocket bread or a pancake? Happily, the answer is all of that - and more.
“It’s our daily bread!” says Venezuelan-turned Sydney-sider Kysbel Castellanos of the gluten-free cornbread that’s such a favourite in Venezuela and Colombia, and now winning fans across Australia.
When it comes to arepas, there are so many ways to make it. Think warm, steamy bread fresh from the oven, split open stuffed with pulled pork and slaw. Thin, crispy Colombian-style arepas hot off the grill, topped with salty cheese, or butter. Big arepas and small arepas, fat ones and thin ones. Even arepas with Vegemite for breakfast!
What they all have in common is cornflour and tradition. (Well, maybe not so much tradition with the Vegemite! But we're all for creating new traditions.)
The Venezuelan style is a little like an English muffin, and almost universally split open and filled. In Colombia, there’s more variation: while a flatter, crisper style is common, there are some filled versions, too.
Ask a Venezuelan about the history of the arepa and they’ll quite likely tell you – with a smile – that Venezuela invented the arepa. Ask a Colombian, and you’ll get a similar answer. Both countries are justifiable fond of their arepas.
“In Venezuelan, the whole country, we eat the same way … slice it up and then you put the fillings inside,” says Castellanos, who has been sharing Venezuelan-style arepa with Sydney for several years now, as co-owner of Arepa in Sydney’s Inner West and before that through a market stall, pop-ups and arepa-making lessons.
At Arepa, Castellanos and her partners serve up arepas that are about a centimetre thick and 10 centimetres across, split open and filled with beans and cheese; pork and coleslaw; or what we’ve dubbed the “you better be hungry” option, the el jefe, which comes generously stuffed with multiple fillings including fried plantains.
At Cumbia in Adelaide, a Latin American tapas-style bar and kitchen, a Best New Restaurant finalist this year, they serve arepa Colombian-style, on both the breakfast and bar menus. “We’re selling more and more,” says owner Salvatore Pittelli. “Everyone loves arepas.”
Cumbia’s arepas are made using a family recipe from Pitelli’s wife and co-owner Julietha Burgos Canon, whose family run a large food business in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city.
The main menu offers arepas topped with combinations such pulled beef, avocado and cheese; pumpkin and feta; or avocado, pork belly and salsa; while the breakfast menu adds options such as arepa pericos – arepa with scrambled eggs, sweetcorn, chopped tomato and shallots.
Arepas proved so popular in Melbourne that earlier this year, Colombian cafe Sonido! opened a dedicated arepa joint, Arepa Days, where they make more than a thousand arepa every week.
And while Arepa Days and Cumbia’s are pancake-style and Arepas are filled pockets, you could just as happily treat them like a burger too, or a sandwich (or a sweet breakfast or dessert: try this recipe for anisita, sweet arepa with anise)
Or just go with The Latin Kitchen host Juan Pablo Gonzalez, who declares them to be “the best bread in the world”.
“Look at the steam, look at the crust,” he says in the show, as he demonstrates how easy it is to make them at home.
Like most arepa, his recipe is simple: a little sugar and salt, some water and cornflour. The secret wonderfully well-cooked, crusty, steaming arepa is to cook them quickly in a hot pan, then finish them in a pre-heated oven.
“Never rush an arepa or a cachapa!” he says, when SBS Food chats to him about the recipes he cooks up in the series.
For an arepa, he explains, “It is best to sear them in a budare [a traditional flat cooking iron - but a frying pan will work, too] until they become loose, then 15-20 minutes in the oven should puff them up to perfection.”
The time in the oven will vary – it could take longer, depending on your dough, size of the arepa and your oven. Or how long you can make yourself wait: “It really depends on how crunchy you want the outside to be and how hungry you are!” Gonzalez tells us. “The time and temperature may vary from one individual to another. Some people don’t even put them in the oven at all.”
In The Latin Kitchen, he shows how to make arepa stuffed with falling-apart, juicy pulled beef brisket; with lime and garlic prawns with tomato sofrito; and one of Venezuela’s favourites, arepas reina pipiada, “our version of a chicken salad sandwich”.
You don’t have to fill it at all to enjoy it, though.
“This is the best bread in the world. You can have it with sancocho, with soups, you can have it as a side dish, with everything,” he says in the show.
Castellanos says she and her partners, Andres Rodriguez and Alberto Ferreira (the three Venezuelans have known each other since they were children), hope customers will discover the many different ways Venezuelans enjoy arepas, often as a bread with another dish. “It's not just one type of meal, like street food. Like, it is street food but we also eat it every day. It's our daily bread. …In the morning with eggs or avocado – or Vegemite! … and then lunch, if you have a soup you have it next to the soup, and then dinner, you can have it with a heavier meal like chicken or pork,” she says.
“Your Mum teaches you how to cook arepas, like, since you were born! It’s a tradition.”
Watch Juan Pablo Gonzalez in The Latin Kitchen, as he and fellow hosts from Spain and Mexico cook their favourite dishes weekdays, 4.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33 from Monday, July 8. Episodes will also be available on SBS On Demand after they air.
Images from Arepa in Sydney by Cook Create Share.
"The sauteed prawns are the perfect combination with a warm, toasty and steamy arepa! And it has a sofrito, which is like a salsa, but better. It's a little messy but really, really good, just like I’m on a beach in Venezuela!"
This is the queen of the arepas, the Reina pepiada, which is our version of a chicken salad sandwich,
Looking for a one-pot, no fuss meal? The meat is so tender it falls off the bone in this hearty soup. Traditionally we would use ox tail in Venezuela, but I'm using beef short ribs.