Filling Up A Nation
Photo: Girish Gupta

Filling Up A Nation

Girish Gupta
Morning Calm [PDF] | Nov. 1, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

The arepa has been a source of pride for venezuelans ever since a backlash as the conquistadors tried to usurp it centuries ago. MorningCalm explores how a simple filled bread incites so much passion in this vibrant population.

At 7am in Caracas’ rundown Montecristo district in Venezuela, Miguel Segovia parks his motorbike outside a small counter just off the main street. Dozens of locals are hunched over small greasy paper bags that spill a jumble of meats, vegetables and cheeses. “It is part of the culture,” says Segovia, a policeman on his way to work. As he tucks into his chicken-filled arepa, others ar- rive and jostle for position in the crowd.

Every morning, they come to this arepera, or arepa shop. About the size of a compact disc, the thick corn flour flatbread, which here is fried but often comes baked or even grilled, is filled with any one of the ingredients that sit in steel trays on the counter — Venezuela’s myriad of cheeses, shredded chicken, beef, even soupfin shark, vegetables as well as avocado.

In Caracas’ upmarket Los Palos Grandes, runners — up early to beat the unbearable Caracas heat — crowd inside the Arepa Factory. The young professionals are still kitted out in the tight shorts and skimpy tops that are a facet of Venezuela’s good-looks culture. The arepas here are baked and filled with the much healthier avocado, caprese salad and grilled cheeses, as well as the traditional meats.

“This is a gourmet arepera,” says owner Antonio Riñanza, who opened up shop in 2000. “As you can see, the fillings are different. They are a bit more sophisticated.” The arepas here are much thinner, crunchier than those in Montecristo. Riñanza believes the arepa’s success is down to its flexibility. “You don’t get bored as quickly as with a hamburger or a sandwich,” he says, pointing to- wards the array of fillings on his counter.

In the evening, professionals line up after a long day at work at a 24-hour arepera in the trendy Las Mercedes district, but the real rush, however, comes as hundreds of 20-somethings stop by after a night out to enjoy a quick arepa before stumbling home.

Key Ingredient

The secret to making arepas is Harina PAN, a precooked flour that is produced by Venezuela’s Empresas Polar beer company. The flour revolutionized the lives of housewives when it was intro- duced in the late 1950s, just as women were beginning to enter the workplace. Preparation of traditional flour — the soaking, peeling then pounding corn kernels — takes hours. Harina PAN only needs to be kneaded before it’s baked or fried. Venezuelans purchase a staggering 23kg of Harina PAN per person per year.

“It is something that is deeply rooted here,” says Adriana Vilar of the Center for Gastronomic Studies. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they were highly skeptical of local cuisine and grew their own wheat. As they were defeated by Latin American independence hero Simón Bolívar in the 19th century, eating arepas turned into a source of pride for the locals, angry that the Spanish had attempted to usurp their cultural icon. There is little surprise that the heavily patriotic Venezuelans still take huge delight in extolling the nationalistic virtues of the arepa. “If you don’t like the arepa, you’re not Venezuelan,” laughs one customer outside the Montecristo streetside shop.

The arepa has not been immune from contentious poli- tics in the country. President Hugo Chávez, who has been in power for the past 12 years and rarely out of the world’s headlines, set up the Arepera Socialista in 2009. Here, heavily subsidized arepas are served by red-shirted wait- ers, while photos of the president look down from the walls covered in quotes from left-wing Latin American thinkers.

The outlets have split the politically polarized Venezuela. Some are pleased that they can satisfy their hunger with both an arepa and the musings of their Comandante while others would not be caught dead there. But regardless of political leanings, Venezuelans are not keen to let them go.

“The arepa is always going to be rooted in the Venezuelan memory,” says Vilar. “It will never be lost.”