An arepa is an iconic South American food with over 75 distinct forms and preparations. According to The Columbian Academy of Gastronomy, “arepas are part of (their) cultural heritage and can be considered a symbol of national gastronomic unity”. Arepas are flat, round, unleavened patties made from maize meal or maize flour that can be grilled, pan-fried, broiled, or steamed.
The word “arepa” is believed to have originated from the language of the Caracas natives near the northern coast of Venezuela and simply means “maize” or corn. Depending on the region of origin, arepas can be served stuffed or topped with various ingredients such as cheese, meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables.
Although arepas can historically be traced back to the indigenous inhabitants of both Venezuela and Columbia, similar variations are also found in Mexico where they are known as “gorditas” or in El Salvador where they are referred to as “pupusas”.
Maize flour (also called “maize“, “masarepa”, “masa de arepa”, “masa al instante”, or “harissa precocida”), is specially prepared by being cooked in water, then dried and can be used for making other maize dough-based dishes including tamales and empanadas. The most common brands of maize found in local supermarkets are typically Goya and Harina PAN. Arepas can be served for breakfast, as a snack, appetizer, or even as a side dish to a main course in place of bread.
I discovered arepas when I moved to California years ago. Cheese arepas were a signature dish at a local café my family and I frequented for breakfast. I fell in love fast. My recipe for classic South American arepas is incredibly similar to those my family and I have been enjoying for years.
Making arepas may seem difficult, but don’t be deceived, they’re not. I use a lovely soft queso fresco cheese in this recipe and the amount can easily be increased or decreased to your liking. My family loves arepas simple, and a touch of sour cream on the side is not a bad addition. Arepas can easily be prepared ahead of time and held, but taste-wise, they are best served hot, straight from the pan with a crispy outside and melted cheesy center.
Recipe: Cheese Arepas
- 2 cups maize flour, such as Harina PAN
- 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
- 1 (12-ounce) package queso fresco, cut into small 1/4 -inch cubes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Sour cream, (optional)
- Step 1 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paeper and set aside.
- Step 2 In a medium mixing bowl add the warm water and salt, and mix to dissolve. Slowly add the corn meal and using your fingers, blend to form a soft dough.
- Step 3 Divide the dough into 16 golf ball-size pieces, and using your hands, gently roll them into a ball and then flatten them into a party about 4-inches wide. Working one at a time, place about 6 cubes of cheese into the center of each patty. Fold the dough over the cheese completely covering all the cheese cubes. Gently pat the stuffed arepas back into a 4-inch round patty and set aside.
- Step 4 Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Working in batches, cook the arepas until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Using a metal spatula. Gently flip the arepas and cook for an additional 4 minutes. Transfer the cooked arepas to the prepared baking pan. Bake until the edges of the arepas are crisp and the tops are golden about 8-10 minutes. Serve hot with sour cream.