Arepas: The South American Street Food

Arepas are a South American delicacy and are incredibly versatile. They are somewhere between a pancake and a tortilla and originate from Latin America. Arepas are primarily made from cornmeal and have a crispy exterior surrounding a fluffy center. 

They are naturally gluten free and their mild flavor makes them a complementary side to any meal. The name is believed to have originated from the word erepa, an indigenous word used by the Cumanagotos tribes of the northern region of Venezuela. This was the word for corn, which explains how the term arepas came into existence. 

Other people speculate that the word arepas descends from the word aripo. This is the term used to describe a curved clay plate that would have been used to cook the arepas.  

What is the History of Arepas?

They are believed to have been invented by the indigenous residents of the Andes mountains, particularly the areas of Colombia and Venezuela. They are often sold as a street food and are eaten at all points throughout the day as a snack or side dish. 

Ingredients for making corn arepas
Ingredients for making corn arepas

There have been archeological discoveries of clay slabs and other equipment used to prepare and cook arepas. These are particularly prevalent in Panama and Venezuela. 

Historical records of corn date back over 3,000 years in Colombia, and around 2,800 in Venezuela. The recipe for arepas appears to have remained mostly unchanged throughout this entire time period. 

How are Arepas Made?

Arepas are primarily formed from maize or corn. This is combined with salt and water to make a pliable dough. The corn is not often finely ground, giving the arepa a slightly gritty texture. They are an unleavened dough, meaning they contain no raising against such as yeast, baking powder, or baking soda

making arepa

The corn for arepas is traditionally ground specifically for the recipe. It used to be soaked in the rain and then ground down to form a dough. Another traditional way to prepare the corn was chewing it up and then spitting it out.

Nowadays you can purchase masarepa flour to make them, which saves you the hassle. The salt and water are added until the dough just holds together without cracking. 

The arepas are then cooked, often by grilling. They can also be baked and fried. This all comes down to a matter of personal preference. 

How Do You Serve Arepas?

The only limit to the possibilities is your imagination. They can be split down the center, buttered, and filled as if you are making a sandwich. They are sometimes served alongside meals with a lot of sauce to help sop up the flavorful liquid. Occasionally you will see them simply served with a dipping sauce. 

Traditional fillings for arepas include cheese, scrambled eggs, and black beans. Chorizo makes a great filling, as does the classic combination of cheese and steak. Other classic fillings include cuajada, or fresh cheese, and diablito, a kind of deviled ham spread. 

Bolivian Arepas

These are not the most traditional form of arepas, but they are still a beloved dish. The most traditional recipe is from the area of Cotoca. 

Colombian Arepas

It is estimated that there are 75 different ways to prepare Colombian arepas. It is so beloved that the dish is part of the Colombian cultural heritage. It is even viewed as a symbolic representation of national gastronomic unity. 

In 2006 the dish was named the cultural symbol of Colombia. In certain regions, such as the Paisa area, the arepa is served with every meal of the day. They are also worn on strings as necklaces by the honored dignitaries. This is seen as a sign of respect and praise. 

arepa con huevos
arepa con huevos

Caribbean Colombians will often eat a dish known as arepa con huevos for breakfast. This is an arepa that has been split down the center and filled with a raw egg. The whole thing is then fried before being served. 

Colombians love the dish so much that there are festivals to celebrate it held in 5 major cities. These are Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, and Bucaramanga. Each city will take it in turns to organize the festival between August and December each year. 

Venezuelan Arepas

A survey of Venezuelan people was conducted in 2015. The results showed that nearly 70% of the citizens consumed arepas on a regular basis. They are eaten as snacks and side dishes and are incredibly easy to find all across the country. They are traditionally eaten for breakfast too. 

It is estimated that Venezuelans consume about 66 pounds of corn each per year. The Venezuelan arepas are often filled with cheese, beef, and avocado. 

There is a variation on the traditional arepas found in the Andes regions of the country. These are made using wheat flour instead of corn, giving a lighter texture. 

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.