The arepa is a corn-based bread from the northern Andes in South America (from countries like Venezuela and Colombia) now spread to other areas in modern Latin American countries. It is similar to the mesoamerican tortilla. Arepas are most popular in Venezuela, Colombia and also Dominican Republic.
The arepa is a flat cornmeal patty which is grilled, baked, or fried. The characteristics of the arepa vary with local culture. For example, in Colombia, the color, flavor, size, thickness, and garniture may vary from region to region. They may be stuffed with cheese, vegetables, or any other desired stuffing.
It is believed that arepa is a word from the dialect of the Caracas Indians (north coast of Venezuela) that translates into maize (corn).
The second, easier, and most popular method today is to buy pre-cooked corn in a dry flour form, specially prepared for making arepa and many other maize based dough dishes (hallacas, bollos, tamales, empanadas, chicha, etc.). The most popular brand name of corn flour in Venezuela is Harina P.A.N., and in Colombia is Areparina; it’s usually made from white corn but there are yellow corn varieties available.
In Venezuela, various kitchen appliance companies sell gadgets like the Tostyarepa, very similar to a waffle iron, which cooks arepas using two hot metallic surfaces clamped with the raw dough inside. Electric arepa makers are not popular in Colombia.
In Colombia, the arepa has deep roots in the colonial farms and in the cuisine of the indigenous people. In modern times, the tradition has not yet been forgotten, although arepas are prepared less frequently at home and more often manufactured and sold in stores.
Arepas are usually eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Common toppings include butter, cheese, chocolate, and hogao.
Besides plain, there are other kinds of arepas:
- Egg arepa (called arepa de huevo or, in the vernacular dialect, arepa’e huevo): originating from the Caribbean coast but a popular street food in most cities, this arepa is deep fried with a single raw egg inside that is cooked through by the time the arepa is ready. Egg arepas are made with the same yellow corn dough and deep-fried in the same manner as most Colombian empanadas, and are often sold from the same food stands. One variation has shredded beef inside along with the egg.
- Cheese arepa (arepa de queso, arepa de quesillo): Another variety with grated cheese is placed inside the cake before it is grilled or fried.
- Arepa Boyacense: Traditional in the department of Boyacá, these arepas are very hard and dense, about 3-4 inches across and filled with a sweet cheese.
- Arepa Valluna: the variety traditional in the departament of Valle del Cauca, made with flour of corn, water and salt and it is greased with butter.
While less popular than in Venezuela, sandwich-like filled arepas are sold throughout Colombia as well.
- Arepa de choclo (or chocolo): made with sweet corn and farmers white cheese.
- Antioquian arepa: Little flat spheroid-shaped arepa without salt served to accompany soups and mondongo soups. Very common in the department of Antioquia.
- Arepa Paisa: Very large and flat arepa made of white maize without salt but accompanied with meats or butter on top of it. Very common in the coffee-producing region, often served with hogao, a traditional sauce (or stew) made of tomatoes and spring onions.
- Arepa de arroz: Made with cooked, mashed rice instead of corn dough.
- Arepa santanderiana: from the area around Bucaramanga, very yellow, usually dry but soft.
In the western part of Colombia, especially around Bogotá, Cali and Medellín, a traditional breakfast includes one portion of arepa, normally complemented with hot chocolate.
Companies like “Don Maíz” have begun to market less-traditional kinds of arepas in Colombian grocery stores that are nonetheless growing in popularity. These include yuca-flavored arepas (yuca bread is more traditional) and arepas made of brown rice and sesame seeds.
On a side note, arepera means a female arepa-maker but it can also be slang for “lesbian”.