(Caracas) From the streets of Caracas to the New York jet-set, from Paris to Tokyo or Hong Kong, the arepa, the Venezuelan pancake made from corn, is riding the gluten-free trend and “conquering the world », driven by the wave of emigration from a country in crisis.
Ready in minutes by mixing pre-cooked cornmeal and water, the arepa can be filled with whatever ingredients you want: from leftovers in the fridge to more elaborate preparations. Venezuelans’ favorite is “reina pepiada”: chicken, mayonnaise and cheese.
“Where there is a Venezuelan, there is an arepa. The arepa is conquering the world,” says Venezuelan food critic Ricardo Estrada Cuevas, author of the book Arepologo.
“It is the daily bread of the Venezuelan. He eats it every day, every night,” says Patrick Ribas, who translated the French version. “You can put whatever you want in there. It’s a dish that you can also eat without anything in it when you don’t have a lot of money. This is unfortunately the case for a lot of Venezuelans.
The crisis, which saw the GDP contract by 80% between 2013 and 2022 in the country, caused the exodus of more than seven million Venezuelans (out of 30 million) who spread all over the world, spreading the arepa.
Marlyn Quiroga, 47, was a lawyer in Venezuela, which she left five years ago to settle in New York. “At first I did a bit of everything like all the immigrants who arrive,” she says, but in 2021 she started catering arepas when she “didn’t know how to make an egg” before.
“I was door-to-door in Queens: beauty salons, offices, clinics. I was giving samples,” she says.
The success was dazzling and the boss of “Arepa LaNewyorquina” assures that in New York parties we now prefer gluten-free arepas to bread.
“It’s a change from the hamburgers you find everywhere,” confirms Jean-François Lamaison, a 63-year-old digital designer at the “Ajidulce-Le Goût du Venezuela” restaurant in Paris, whose slate advocates “Arepa Power”.
“It has the merit of being a corn pancake with some pretty good stuff, plantain style or whatever. I like the diversity of tastes,” he says.
Boss Luis Fernando Machado, an engineer in the oil industry before leaving Venezuela in 2011, started with a Venezuelan gastronomy “food-truck” in 2014. With success, he now has a storefront with a restaurant in the 9th borough which employs 10 people and whose kitchen is open so that “customers can see the preparation”.
“Parisians like to discover exotic food and this is like taking a little trip to the Caribbean”, explains the man from Punto Fijo, in the northwest of Venezuela.
“Things homemade with fresh products are good,” he adds, pointing to sourcing from exotic grocery stores (Colombian, African, West Indian) in the French capital.
Luis Fernando Machado also claims to benefit from the growing demand for gluten-free “complete meals”. There are a lot of tourists who come […], because we are well referenced in gluten-free restaurants”, he rejoices.
“Healthy, gluten-free street food” is how 42-year-old Venezuelan Raul Marquez and his Japanese wife Miho present their Venezuelan patties food truck in Tokyo.
“Venezuela has gone through a difficult period […] there is a strong emigration. We bring with us part of what belongs to us. Arepas are one of them. For me, an arepa is my mother. It’s eating in the morning before going to school […] that’s what I put on today when I sell arepas: this passion, this love that comes from home,” says Raul Marquez.
In Caracas, Lisbeth Marquez has been selling arepas on “Hunger Street” for 15 years, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Her favorite? The “pabellon” with melted butter, black beans, an egg and grated cheese.
And if she sells some 1,200 a day, she makes it at home before going to work: “I never get tired of eating it. The best arepa is the one at home.”