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The Salt

Arepas Are Conquering The World — But Dying At Home In Venezuela


The license plate on the Arepa Zone food truck speaks for many as the arepa's popularity expands worldwide, even though it grows scarce in its native Venezuela.
Courtesy of Arepa Zone
The license plate on the Arepa Zone food truck speaks for many as the arepa's popularity expands worldwide, even though it grows scarce in its native Venezuela.

Puyana (@Puyana) is a Venezuelan writer living in Austin, Texas. He is working on a novel titled Freedom Is a Feast set in Venezuela.

The past three months have been bad for Venezuela — some of the worst months in a string of bad months, the worst year in a string of bad years. Violent confrontations between government forces and protesters have left dozens dead in the streets. Families are scavenging scraps of food from trash bags. But there is one silver lining: The arepa, the sine qua non of Venezuelan foods, the give-us-now-our-daily-bread for Venezuelans, has finally made it big — but only outside the nation's borders.

Venezuelans eat a lot of arepas. The tasty cornmeal cakes — grilled, baked or fried and filled with everything from avocado to braised meat to quail egg salad — are a cornerstone of Venezuelan nutrition.

Arepas are also one of the few pre-Columbian traditions left in modern Venezuela and are certainly the most pervasive. Before Europeans came to the New World, indigenous women in the region that now makes up Panama, Colombia and Venezuela would soak maize kernels, dehusk them, dry them and grind them into a fine flour. They would mix that flour with water to create balls of dough and then flatten them into disks. The pale, golden disks would then go on a budare, a hot clay surface that would toast the cakes on both sides but leave the inside soft and moist.

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José De Acosta, a Jesuit explorer and naturalist of the 16th century, wrote that the budare was like a sacrificial stone for the rite of the first bread. That is what the arepa was for indigenous tribes. And while modern Venezuelans might make them with precooked flour, the society's almost religious devotion to the arepa has arguably been the only indigenous tradition to survive intact through Spanish colonization.

Before the current food crisis and widespread hunger, Venezuelans ate an average of 66 pounds per person per year of Harina P.A.N., the brand name synonymous with the precooked maize flour that is the main ingredient in arepas. At a little more than 11 arepas per pound, that comes to about 750 arepas per person, per year. You read that right. In ideal circumstances, Venezuelans eat two arepas every day of the year.

The Venezuelan regime has ruined even that. The National Assembly's commission on the agricultural crisis calculated that this year, consumption will drop to 34 pounds per person, mostly because of widespread corn shortages. The days of "that's good, give me another" have gone the way of the dodo.

Outside of Venezuela, however, the arepa is flourishing. That is what happens when an authoritarian regime forces anywhere from 6 percent to 9 percent of a country's population to leave. Conservative estimates say that 1.8 million Venezuelans had emigrated between the start of the presidency of populist strongman Hugo Chavez in 1999 and 2015. Studies indicate that last year alone 150,000 people left — the highest yearly number in a decade. This year should prove no different.

Historically, Venezuela has been a country that welcomes immigrants. Before Chavez was elected in 1998, the number of Venezuelans immigrating to other countries was low. For most of its democratic life, the country was a haven for those escaping rough times. Venezuela's arms were wide open for hundreds of thousands Spaniards, Italians and Jews in the two decades after World War II, and then again for millions of Colombians escaping violence and economic despair in the last decades of the 20th century. This immigration explosion not only brought Venezuela a cultural and workforce boon, but also a culinary tradition that enriched the country. And isn't that what immigrants do? They take their most precious things with them when they leave — and apart from family, what's more precious than the things we eat?

So that's what happens when millions of Venezuelans settle across the world or return to the land of their grandparents. We bring arepas with us.

When Caracas Arepa Bar opened on Manhattan's East Seventh Street in 2003, many New Yorkers couldn't tell an arepa from a cachapa from a patacón — it stood as the lone showcase of the Venezuelan arepa in New York. Today, a Google map search for "New York Venezuelan food" returns more than two dozen restaurants. The arepa, and Venezuelan culinary tradition in general, has made its mark on the international culinary scene.

I've traveled to arepa places in Barcelona, Spain, and San Francisco, and they all taste like home. The fillings might change: manchego cheese and jamón de bellota instead of carne mechada and queso amarillo (yellow cheese), or Asian-style marinated pork belly instead of reina pepiada (the queen of arepa fillings, prepared by mixing thin strands of boiled chicken with bright green avocados). But the arepa itself — the dough that is and will always be water, corn and salt — remains the same. It still has the indentations of the fingers that pressed them — and for any Venezuelan living abroad, it will always taste like what we've left behind.

Today, I'm no longer surprised when a chef on a cooking show prepares an arepa and wins, or when Arepa Zone wins best food truck in Washington, D.C., for the second time in a row. When I moved to Austin, Texas, in 2006, the only place for an arepa was in my kitchen. Today I have my pick of locations, but they're never as good as mine — and none will ever be as good as my mom's. In the streets of Lima, Perú, you have young Venezuelan professionals, once middle-class, selling arepas to the Peruvian working class. You have American moms and personal trainers blogging about the new gluten-free "It" food. And you can't take four steps in Miami without smelling arepas on a grill.

The arepa has arrived. You're welcome, world.

But that is no consolation for the millions of Venezuelans who are struggling to feed themselves, who have to stand in line for hours to get their price-regulated bag of Harina P.A.N. or haggle in the black market and spend many times the official cost. A lot of those people will join the diaspora soon enough. The lucky will take planes to Miami and join family or friends and use their university degrees to get jobs at Best Buy. The less lucky are starting to take rafts to Curaçao or Trinidad, hoping to escape hunger. The unlucky — and the stubborn — have to stay. For them, the arepa has become not a symbol of everyday sustenance, but a luxury.

A version of this essay appeared in Caracas Chronicles.

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