There I was, my last day in Bogotá, Colombia, gazing over dozens of beaded bracelets and parrot earrings at a touristy tchotchke shop in downtown. Aware that the months of galavanting around South America had ended for me, I surrendered myself to locking in my cultural experiences with cheap gringo mementos. Within the labyrinth of leather-this and braided-that, I came upon a miniature restaurant tucked in at the edge of the market. Restaurant may be stretching it; there were a couple small tables that scarcely fit two normal humans and just one flat top griddle in the so-called kitchen. There were at least three older women chatting around the griddle, and atop it, they were languidly frying up golden, crispy arepas.
Souvenir shopping abruptly halted, and I sat myself down at the one open table, ordering a single plain arepa. I knew this would be my last arepa in South America; a bittersweet acknowledgment. One of the women offered me hot sauce, or ahí, but she warned me that is was muy picante. I smiled and poured it over the thick, tortilla-like patty and then, solemnly and sentimentally, took the last first bite. Yeah, it was spicy.
Arepas kept me happily alive and well while I was traveling through Colombia. Arepas are simple fried or grilled patties made of ground corn flour, water, and salt. Simple, yet vital to Colombian cuisine. Most meals are not complete without arepas on the side to scoop up sauce or catch any savory tidbits.
There is such a variety to the simple arepa, and I tried to taste as many as I could get my hands on. I ate big fluffy white ones on city streets, with cheese and butter stuffed inside; I ate them on the beach, sweating; I ate bright yellow ones with fresh sweet corn; I ate them for breakfast with huevos and a huge cup of hot chocolate (yes, chocolate for breakfast!); I ate little arepitas topped with hogao, a cooked tomato salsa; and I ate big flat ones fried up crispy on each side. There were sweet ones too. I ate them all.
I even started cooking up arepas myself, buying the particular cornmeal masa at the supermercado and impressing couchsurfing hosts and hostel-mates with the homemade version. Yes, gringos can make them too! I put my own spin on them, piling them high with avocado, pickled onion, fried egg, queso fresco, lime and cilantro. I didn’t tire of this eating pattern, and ate arepas most days in Colombia, usually multiple times a day. Some were much better than others, but my love affair with arepas was solidified. I loved arepas, their versatility, their simplicity and eatability wherever I was.
Arepas are a staple amongst both the Colombian and Venezuelan cuisines, and apparently, both countries claim it to their heritage. The silent arepa battle continues relentlessly between the two countries, though their divergent preparation styles allow for some cultural peace. Venezuelan arepas usually come stuffed with a colorful array of meaty and cheesy and beany fillings, ready to be gorged after a boozy night of dancing or for a quick lunch on the go, arepa sandy in hand.
Colombians keep it simple, maybe sliding a single egg in there or just going with the simple melted butter and cheese combo. Sometimes they skip stuffing and instead go for vertical height, piling on different savory meats and salty cheeses. Or, hey, here’s some hot sauce. Enjoy. Nothing more is needed.
How ever you stuff or eat them, arepas are golden discs of savory (or sweet!) joy. They are easy to make, and if you weren’t already in love with them, guess what? They’re gluten-free too! GF friends and allies, rejoice! The arepa love only grows larger.
Arepas were the best souvenir I brought back home. No, I did not stash the rest of that final arepa in my carry-on bag, tempting as it was, but I did bring back my passion for sharing this Latin delicacy with friends and family. So try them out. Stuff them, stack them, share them with others, and just try not to love the delicious arepa, good ‘til the last bite.