Cuisine Spotlight – Arepa

You can’t come to South America, especially Colombia, Venezuela, and even Panama without trying the local cuisine staple of the Arepa. The Arepa may be the most popular food to try and there is a lot of variety to this food, which makes it quite popular to eat. In countries such as Colombia or Venezuela, Arepas are eaten on a daily basis and are usually served with breakfast but they can also be served with lunch or dinner depending on the consumer’s preferences. Arepas can also be found in other countries such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, etc. where they are less popular but still part of the local cuisine.

When compared to other Latin America staple foods, the Arepa is most similar to the Mexican gordita and the Salvadoran pupusa. What would surprise most people to learn about the Arepa is that an indigenous group of people known as the Timoto-Cuica created this food to feed the two separate tribes of the Timoto and the Cuica on a daily basis. This indigenous group was based out of the Andean region of western Venezuela and was made up of thousands of people total who were apart of those two tribes.

There are many different types of Arepas and you can mix and match with different ingredients depending upon your own preferences. Usually though, the Arepa is most often made up of ground maize dough or cooked flour to form the basis of this food. Sometimes, you can also substitute flour for yellow cornmeal that is popular in the Santander region of Colombia in the north of the country. In terms of appearance, an Arepa will be flat, round, and unleavened although sometimes they can be served as leavened especially when they are made in the street stalls late at night.

One of the great things about Arepas is there are many different ways in which you can cook them. An Arepa can be baked, grilled, steamed, fried, or boiled. The color, size, thickness, and appearance of an Arepa can vary from country to country or from one region to another. Perhaps, most importantly, you can add any kind of ingredients to fill out your arepa as a delicious sandwich or a platter.

The options are nearly limitless in that you can put on or within your Arepa such as foods like eggs, meat, fruits, vegetables, cheese, fish, shrimp, salad, etc. You can also simply eat it without any additional ingredients too if you just want to have a simple arepa for breakfast. However, if it’s late at night and you have had a few adult beverages to drink earlier, you may want to have an arepa sandwich with a lot of toppings to fill you up.

In order to make Arepas yourself, you need to have a good amount of water and salt to mix with your flour along with some additional ingredients like cooking oil, butter, eggs, and milk. Then, you’ll need to form the dough and shape it so it fits into the form of an Arepa and afterwards you can put it on the grill or stove to start cooking. Arepas can only take a couple of minutes to prepare and cook so it’s one of those foods that you can make in great quantities without too much effort or skill. Still though, that is part of what makes the Arepa such a daily staple of the cuisine is that it is simple yet delicious and there is a lot of variety to it if you are able to put in some extra effort.

When it comes to Colombia, it is probably the most popular food in the country and you can find it in practically every region of the country. In addition, there are dozens of variations on the Arepa depending on where in the country you find yourself. Despite the differences between Medellin and Cartagena, Bogota and Bucaramanga, each of these cities prides itself on their Arepas and would like to claim that they have the best Arepas in Colombia. In the past, the Arepa has become a cultural symbol of Colombia and is sometimes served with every meal of the day regardless of the circumstances, which is often the case particularly in the Antioquia region of the country.

You can find Arepas in many different places whether it’s been pre-packaged at the grocery store or if it’s being freshly prepared by hand late at night at the local street stall in your neighborhood. Wherever you visit in Colombia, you’re likely to be only a stone’s throw away from the nearest restaurant or cafeteria that will be able to serve you a delicious Arepa.

The Arepa has become so popular in Colombia that there is an annual festival devoted to this cuisine staple called the ‘Colombian Arepa Festival’, which is celebrated in the major cities of Bogota, Barranquilla, Medellin, Cali, and Bucaramanga. The festival in each of these five cities usually takes place sometime in between the months of August to December. If you haven’t figured it out already, the Arepa has a long-standing region in South America especially in Colombia. If you can’t stop your mouth from watering, you may want to buy a plane ticket and try this food out for yourself. Be careful though because if you eat them everyday, you may end up gaining some extra weight.

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Cuisine Spotlight – Sancocho

Many cultures around the world have their own unique take on stews and soups that are both hearty and comes with a number of different ingredients. This is also the case in many Latin American countries where the stew itself is called ‘sancocho’ and is closely related to the Spanish stew known as ‘cocido.’ Along with the Spanish influence, Sancocho takes most of its’ ingredients from local foods that are popular and add flavor to the dish. Sancocho is also considered to be the national dish in a few of the Latin American countries where it is made and eaten.

Among the countries where Sancocho is a popular food dish includes the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Venezuela, etc. so you could say that it’s a staple and has become popular in many households and restaurants. Sancocho is believed to have originated from the Canary Islands where it is a dish that heavily is made of a whole-cooked fish with broth and potatoes.

The dish was brought over to Latin America when the Canarians and their descendants immigrated to parts of the new world centuries ago. As is the case with many different foods, the immigrants who move to a different part of the world often bring their favorite dishes with them. While fish was a main ingredient in the ‘original’ sancocho, there are many different types of meats and vegetables that make up variations on the popular dish depending upon which country you’re in. Sancocho is especially common to be served during lunchtime as it is quite filling and can hold a person over until dinner comes around. It’s common for Sancocho to be served in a huge pot for a family gathering or birthday party where the dish can be expanded to served dozens of people total.

In Colombia, specifically, sancocho is an extremely popular dish with a wide range of ingredients that can range from chicken to ox tail. Other meats that can be apart of sancocho include hen, pork ribs, cow ribs, fish, etc. For example, sancocho with fish is really popular on the Atlantic coast of Colombia while pork and beef is more commonly found in the interior of the country. In addition to mean, sancocho can also include large portions of plantains, yucca, potatoes, and various vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, cilantro, scallions, mazorca (corn on the cob), etc.

There is simply no limit as to what can be put into sancocho and each country puts a different spin on the popular dish. In the Dominican Republic, for example, there is Sancocho de siete carnes, which is a dish made up of a mixture of different meats including chicken, beef, pork, etc. Sancocho de gallina, which is made up of free-range chicken is quite popular in Panama and is also the national dish of the country. Puerto Rico has the distinction of even adding smoked ham, pork feet with chick feats, which is known as sancocho de patitas and is quite unique in terms of its’ culinary characteristics.

The beautiful thing about sancocho is that there are so many different regional and national varieties to this dish are that the possibilities of mixing and matching different ingredients or toppings is simply endless. Any nation that has been touched by Spanish influence or colonization has adapted their own version of sancocho including even in the Philippines, which has a huge amount of meats and vegetables to offer in its own national take on the dish. Keeping to the Spanish heritage of the dish, they call it cocido as it is known in Spain.

If you decide to come to Latin America and find yourself at someone’s family gathering, hanging out with a few friends, or enjoying a birthday party, it’s likely that you’ll get a good serving of sancocho. In addition, the sancocho you get depending upon the country or the region in which the dish is being served to you will most likely be different and have some variation to it. The beauty of a popular dish like sancocho is its’ history, its’ adaptability, as well as the chance to gather with a group of people and dig in to this delicious food together.

 

Cuisine Spotlight – Cazuela

This second post in the new ‘Cuisine Spotlight’ series will focus on another favorite dish of mine here in Colombia, which is known simply as ‘Cazuela.’ Despite the unassuming name, this popular South American dish is quite diverse in what it can offer you when it comes to mealtime. Depending upon what you’re craving, a good cazuela can be made up of seafood, beef, chicken, etc. as its main base food. ‘Cazuela’ is a Spanish word, which roughly translates into ‘Casserole’ in English.

Similar to a casserole, a cazuela dish is a mix and match of different kinds of foods with tasty results. Usually, cazuela is considered to be a soup made up of different vegetables and meats mixed together. You can’t have cazuela without some flavored cooking stock put in there to form the soup-like appearance. Depending upon which South American country you’re visiting or living in, there will be a different spin on what cazuela looks, smells, and tastes like.

In Chile, cazuela comes with a piece of meat, which can either be turkey, pork, chicken, or beef. Specifically, a leg of chicken or some beef ribs will be the meat in the cazuela dish. Underneath the meat would be a piece of pumpkin and individual pieces of potato with a base of white rice doused in the flavored cooking stock. For the vegetables, it varies depending upon the cook’s preference but there’s usually celery, carrots, green beans, cabbage, etc. that are sliced and diced up to be soaked in the cooking stock and added to the rice and meat. In the summer time, some Chileans will add some sweet corn to the vegetable mix. The Chilean version of cazuela is known as being very similar to the ‘Olla podrida’, which is a colonial dish from Spain that has gained in popularity in Chile and other South American nations.

Cazuela is also quite popular in Peru, the southern neighbor of Colombia. Cazuela is often prepared in the Amazonas region of Peru and is made in different ways depending on which area of the department you’re in. For the meat, there are often more creative choices like hen and sheep that are added to cabbage, rice, carrots, and the broth juice. Usually, this kind of cazuela is cooked over a flame in a sauce pot as its mixed together and served to a large group of people.

Beyond just being a soup or a casserole, Cazuela can also be made into a traditional kind of pie as it is in Puerto Rico. During Christmas season, the Cazuela pie is made up of sweet potato, pumpkin, and coconut milk. It’s quite a popular desert that is easy to make and is popular for its’ sweet flavor and light texture.

Multiple countries in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia have embraced the ‘Cazuela de Mariscos’, which is made up of a number of different kinds of seafood. The Colombian version is easy to make and is known for being a thick kind of soup and also is rumored to be an ‘aphrodisiac.’ The seafood that comes in the soup includes calamari squid, prawns, clams, shrimp, and small pieces of fish.

The kind of ingredients you want to add are olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, coconut milk, white wine, some seasoning, heavy cream and minced garlic. To top it off, you need some vegetables including carrots, celery, red pepper, tomatoes, and bouillons. You got to mix up everything together, serve it in a clay pot or bowl, and enjoy the delicious broth and food. Sometimes, you can find that there are cazuelas for shrimp or prawns separately which can come with rice and a heavy broth mixed together with the seafood.

The type of cazuela that I have become most familiar with over the past couple of months is the ‘cazuela antioquena.’ You can find it throughout the department of Antioquia and most commonly in the city of Medellin. I find it to be unique compared to other kinds of cazuelas given the emphasis on ingredients that are known well to Paisas making it a local favorite.

You start with a base of Antioquian brown beans mixed in with some white rice. On top of that is the meat, which are usually ‘chicharron’ or fried pork belly and some cooked chorizo. Instead of more common vegetables like celery and carrot, this favorite dish of Antioquia comes with pieces of avocado and some cut-up sweet plantains. To add some flavor, the Colombian creole sauce known as ‘Hogao’ is mixed among the meat, plantains, avocado, rice, and beans.

Like many other local dishes here, a small arepa is added to the mix, and placed at the top of the ‘cazuela antioquena’ to be eaten with the rice, beans, chorizo and whatever else would go along well with the arepa. Second only to the ‘Bandeja Paisa’, the ‘cazuela antioquena’ is likely to be a fulfilling dish for lunch that can satisfy your cravings for some local cuisine.

It’s likely that you’ll run into some kind of ‘cazuela’ if you’re traveling or living in South America. The various kinds of cazuela unique to a certain country or region makes it an exciting dish due to its diversity. Whether it’s meat, seafood, vegetables, rice, and beans in the cazuela, it’s important to bring a big appetite to the table because it’s likely to fill you up and leave you satisfied.