This past weekend, I went to the Louisville, Kentucky, to an event that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the steamboat, the Belle of Louisville. This grand old dame of the Ohio River was accompanied by the Spirit of Jefferson, the Spirit of Peoria, and two B & B Riverboats from Cincinnati, in a parade up the Ohio. Along the shores of the public landing were food booths, indicative of the southern fare you’d find in Louisville – bourbon, hot browns, shrimp and grits and other southern fare. But I saw several booths selling cheese arepas, something I’d never seen before. As it turns out, these are a native bread made out of cornmeal the size of a thick pancake, with cheese in between and warmed on a flat grill until all melted together. The arepa are common in the cuisine of Venezuala and Columbia. It’s similar to the Mexican gordita, and the Salvadoran pupusa. A version of the pupusa is also served in Guatemala, but it’s more like a stuffed corn pie than a sandwich of two areapas. If it were deep fried or pan fried it might be similar to the empanada. It’s basically a fried cornbread carrier for a filling.
The arepa can be topped or stuffed with meat, eggs, tomatoes, salad, cheese, shrimp or fish depending on the meal. Breakfast egg, especially a Caribbean type of scramble egg, called perico, or cheese, are the most common arepa fillings. A typical breakfast in Bogota, Colombia, consists of an arepa and hot chocolate. And there are many recipes for meat fillings using ingredients from crispy pork skin to school shark.
The arepa comes from the indigenous peoples that lived in the Northern Andes mountains of Venezuela. Other Amer-Indian tribes like the Arawaks and Caribs, widely ate an arepa-like food called casabas made from yucca. With the colonization of the region by the Spanish conquistadores, the arepa-like form spread into the rest of the region –including Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama. The word arepa comes from the word ‘erepa’, which means corn bread in the indigenous language of the natives of Venezuela and Colombia.
These arepas sold in Louisville were about 8 inches in diameter and with the cheese in between looked like they were about 2” thick. They smelled great, and I’m sure tasted wonderful, but looked like they packed enough calories to fuel a full day of picking coffee beans or cutting sugar cane, neither of which I planned to do. So, I stayed with my double barrel Woodstone cocktail and crabcake.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes before we start seeing these at street festivals in Cincinnati, and what kind of variations they start taking, given the local ingredients available. However long it takes, it was good to see an ancient Latin American streetfood making its way into the gringo mainstream of the Midwest.