Most people think the complexity of a meal and the difficulty of its preparation are proportionally related to its deliciousness. In some cases it may be true but like everything else in life, things are always relative.
Here’s one very simple recipe that will definitely cause you a culinary orgasm. The dish is called arepa and it comes from the South American region of Gran Colombia. It’s the undisputed national dish of Venezuela and its origin can be traced directly to the indigenous Timoto–Cuica people who inhabited the Andean region in the western part of the country. Arepas are also hugely popular in neighboring Colombia.
The oldest arepa recipe known today comes from a book called “Viaje y descripción de las Indias (1539-1553)” by Galeotto Cei. Here is a translation from Spanish:
They make another kind of bread (with corn) resembling tortilla, a finger thick, round and large like a French dish, more or less. It’s put to cook on a griddle over fire and is brushed with lard to prevent it from sticking, flipping it until fully cooked on both sides and this variety is called arepas and some fecteguas.
Cornflour, salt, water, some vegetable oil
As you can read from the quoted description, it’s hardly rocket science. All you need is cornflour, a pinch of salt and water. 250 g of cornflour is enough for a satisfying breakfast for two people. Add a pinch of salt, then start pouring water slowly while mixing continuously until it forms a thick paste. Add a little bit of vegetable oil and mix it well into the paste. It should be thick enough to be shaped into flat round patties.
Experienced cooks prepare each arepa by rolling part of the mixture between their palms until it forms a ball and then slightly applying pressure while continuing to roll until the ball flattens. The prepared shapes may be cooked in different ways, for example fried in oil or baked. The indigenous way is to cook them on firewood. Preparation time varies and it depends on the thickness but it’s usually about 5 minutes per side on medium fire.
You can serve arepas in many different ways. There are elaborate recipes for arepas stuffed with cheese, ground meat or vegetables. In case you find stuffing cornflour dough a bit too complicated or time-consuming, you can simply slice an already cooked arepa in two parts (like a bread roll of a hamburger) and add a ground meat patty or freshly sliced vegetables in between.
In Venezuela, arepas are often eaten with perico, the Latin American version of the European scrambled eggs, which is made by frying diced onions and finely chopped tomatoes in butter and adding several eggs at the end.
In some western parts of Colombia, people serve them with hot chocolate.
There is one way to serve arepas, which I especially like. Put them on a plate and add a small slice of butter on top of each one. The aromatic mixture of baked corn and melting butter will definitely make you happy.
There are many varieties of cornflour and some of them are white in color. In case you want to achieve a corn-like yellow look, you can use artificial food colorants (which I definitely don’t recommend) or some natural spices. Turmeric powder will add a very rich yellow color and a bit of ground paprika will bring an even darker note. However, be aware that unlike artificial colorants, most natural ingredients will also alter the taste of the arepas. An interesting serving decoration is to put chunks of mozzarella cheese on top of each arepa and sprinkle with paprika powder. You can further add a whole grain of black pepper or a squirt of mustard on top of the mozzarella chunk. As with any other dish, use your imagination and trust your gut instinct.