Arepas: Colombia’s Iconic Food

Arepas – a classic street food

“Arepa, arepa, arepa” the street vendor sings on the street. Welcome to Colombia, the home of the arepa.

Served with every meal, the arepa is the iconic food in Colombia.  It is part of their cultural heritage and considered a symbol of gastronomic unity.

What are Arepas?

The arepa is a flat, round, unleavened patty of corn meal. It can be as big as a silver dollar or as large as a hamburger bun. Arepas are made from dried corn that has been boiled in an alkaline solution or lime water to remove the kernel’s outer skin. The kernels are then ground into a masa harina or corn flour – a technique long ago developed by ancient native Americans.

Arepas are corn flour mixed together with water, oil and salt and pressed into patties. Griddle cooked, fried, baked or grilled over hot embers. They are gluten-free and there are more than 75 ways to make them.

In Colombia and Venezuela, arepas are eaten daily. They can be topped or filled with meat, cheese,  fish, tomatoes, avocado, egg or chocolate. Arepas are a street food, a Colombian fast food, and are found literally everywhere.

Arepa masa being formed into patties

The arepa is a pre-Colombian dish and has gone, unchanged, as a daily staple for centuries. 

Arepa making instruments have been found in archeological sites throughout the country. While the Spanish introduced American corn to Europe, they were the first to bring wheat to the Americas. Unimpressed with arepas they taught the locals how to make bread. Today bakeries or panaderias can be found throughout the country. Colombians love their breads and pastries. Still, arepas have remained the traditional starch to accompany every meal.

From course milled corn meal Italians make polenta and North Americans make corn bread, porridge and grits. From the corn flour Mexicans make tortillas and tamales and Salvadorians make corn tortillas called pupusas.

Due to a long experience with corn meal it’s not surprising that Americans have developed numerous uses for it. Whole dried field corn can be ground into coarse, medium or fine textures. From milled corn meal Italians make polenta, North Americans make corn bread, porridge and grits. And from corn flour Mexicans make tortillas and tamales. Salvadorians make corn tortillas called pupusas.

Arepas with Every Meal

Every meal in Colombia comes with arepas – plain and simple. For the uninitiated, arepas will prove to be an acquired taste. If no one told you you’ll  be eating a lot of arepas in Colombia – I’m telling you now. 

While I love most corn meal products, I somehow missed th boat on plain arepas. But never tell your host or server you don’t want or like arepas.  They have no sympathy and will stop in their tracks to ask  you why. 

And don’t ask them if you can have bread instead. Because you will probably get a slice of white sandwich bread thrown on your plate – which is even worse.

So just surrender. Eat the arepa. Or at least take a bite. Maybe wrap it in a napkin, take it with you and  later go feed the pigeons in the park.

Packed Arepas – Some Serious Eats

But in defense of the arepa, I do love them topped, stuffed and/or filled.

If you are currently in Colombia and are still trying figure out arepas,  I suggest your hit the street and look for the following: arepas con huevo – a golden yellow, deep fried arepa filled with a cooked egg; arepas; arepas con queso – arepas filled with warm, stringy cheese; arepas de choclo – a pancake made with sweet corn cooked on a hot griddle. And arepas used just as a sandwich bun stuffed with any kind of filling makes for some serious eats.

(see article: ‘Healthy, fresh, Colombian fruit juices’)

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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