Arepas con queso are the breakout stars of Encanto, the Disney hit set in Colombia. It almost seems convincing when Julieta Madrigal channels her magical powers to heal the ill with the cheesy, savoury corn cake. After all, arepas are the backbone of Colombian gastronomy, the traditional dish adding a daily dose of enchantment to everyday meals across households in the country.
According to Latin American Post, experts believe that the native tribes that lived in the region now known as modern-day Colombia and Venezuela started cooking with corn around 3,000 years ago. Its evidence lies in uncovered, ancient cooking utensils used for the making of arepa, though it doesn’t explain why the same dish is prepared so differently in both nations.
There are at least 55 types of arepa in Colombia, and 42 in Venezuela, according to Carlos Gaviria, chef and teacher at Colombia’s La Sabana University.
Some of the many varieties of Colombian arepas include: arepas de chócolo (known as cachapas in Venezuela) which are covered in cheese and folded in half; arepas santandereanas that call for small pieces of crackling pork to be introduced into the dough; the deep-fried, egg-filled arepas de huevo that is inspired from the Caribbean; and the thin, cheeseless arepas paisa, topped with a ricotta-resembling farmer’s cheese called quesillo.
Venezuelan-style arepas are more similar to thicker, corn-based flatbreads such as Mexican gorditas and the Salvadorian pupusas, typically stuffed with fillings such as meat, beans, or seafood, while the Colombian version is quintessentially plain with cheese or just egg. In the case of Colombian arepas, milk is often added to the dough—made with a special type of cornmeal or corn flour called masarepa or arepa flour—considered the secret to airy, Colombian-style arepas.
Arepas can be eaten throughout the day and are considered an indispensable side dish in any household, though they’re typically devoured during breakfast with hot chocolate or coffee.
Colombitalia Arepas and Quero Arepa in Bolivar, and Estación Arepa Rellena and Arepas Factor Express in Bogota are local favourites. Medellin also has some great options, such as Los Chamos Arepas Venezolanas, Mi Arepa, and Arepas Rellenas.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2022.
Recipe by Andrew Rea and Kendall Beach
295-355 ml water (37-43°C)
1 tsp kosher salt
283g (weigh) pre-cooked white cornflour or masarepa
28g unsalted butter, soft + more for cooking (if browning too much, use olive oil)
70g low moisture mozzarella, shredded
Optional: 8-16 slices deli-sliced mozzarella cheese
1 In a large bowl, combine 355 ml of water and salt.
2 Slowly add the cornflour, in four-five additions, to the water mixture. Using your hands, begin mixing and kneading the dough until all of the cornflour is incorporated. Let the mixture sit for 3 minutes.
3 Once the dough has rested, add the butter and cheese. Knead the dough for 4-5 minutes or until completely smooth and homogeneous. **try hand flattening one to check for proper moisture** If the dough is too dry, add another 30-60 ml of water, or enough to form a supple but not sticky dough.
4 Using wet hands, divide the dough into eight relatively even balls. Press the balls into patties about ½ inch thick and 3-4 inches in diameter.
5 Preheat a large skillet over medium-low heat. Brush the pan with more softened butter, then add the arepas.
6 Cook on each side for 5-7 minutes, or until browned on both sides and cooked through. The arepas should be fluffy, but not wet when cut into.
(Disclaimer: The recipe has been adapted from www.bingingwithbabish.com for editorial use.)
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.