An arepa is a traditional South America dish, prepared and used much like bread. Unlike breads, however, arepas are made with corn instead of wheat. They play a major role in the cuisine of many nations, including Colombia and Venezuela, and are readily available all over South America in street side stands and restaurants. Outside of South America, arepas can sometimes be found in communities with a large South American population, or they can be made at home.
The origins of arepas appear to lie in Venezuela, although Colombia also considers it a national food. Corn has been an important part of the diet of Americans for centuries, with Native Americans first domesticating the over sized grass and learning how to use it. Arepas are made from a base of ground corn which is formed into patties. They can be grilled, baked, or fried, depending on personal taste. Other areas of South America quickly picked up the recipe, and arepas became, and continue to be, extremely popular.
Plain arepas are very common, but so are an assortment of filled and topped ones. In Colombia especially, many cooks top their arepas with ingredients like butter or cheese. Arepas rellenas, which are filled with a variety of ingredients, are also very popular. Meats, vegetables, eggs, and cheeses may all be included in arepas rellenas, which can be eaten at any time of the day. In some countries, night clubbers typically feast on them after a long night of dancing.
The size and consistency of arepas varies, depending on the region. They are usually round, but they can take the form of large puffy breads or small flat breads. As a flat bread, they make an excellent base for an assortment of toppings, while puffier ones can be sliced open to make arepas relleno. The dish is much easier to make now that corn flour is available pre-treated, leading to an explosion of arepas all over South America.
To make arepas, a cook combines an equal amount of corn flour and water, adding salt and a small amount of cooking oil to make a loose dough. Most Latin American specialty stores offer pre-cooked cornmeal for making these and other corn-based foods. Otherwise, the cornmeal will have to be soaked in lime and cooked to remove the hard casing of the grain. The dough is kneaded and divided into small rounds which can be grilled, baked, deep fried, or pan fried.