Suburban Macondo

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Time to make the arepas ...

We were so naïve. Nine months ago, when Brooke and I would imagine our trip to Venezuela, we conjured up a country full of fascinating national and regional cuisines. We thought about the country’s incredible geographical diversity—hundreds of miles of coastline, rain forests, high mountains, fertile plains—and we expected tropical fruits and fresh vegetables complementing an array of fish and meat plates in a sort of gastronomic heaven. We envisioned simple yet delicious street food and a gourmet blend of Caribbean and South American staples in the expensive restaurants.

The only thing we worried about was the welfare of our stomachs, not the cravings of our taste buds. It all seemed so inviting, so succulent, so Discovery Travel & Living that we couldn’t wait to get to Mérida and start eating.

That now seems like a long time ago. Instead of bountiful and delicious, the Venezuelan menu has proved to be limited, insufficient, lacking and inconsistent. It’s great to pay the equivalent of $2 for fresh juice, soup and a full plate of food, but not so great when the food is atrocious, or something you don’t eat, or the same thing you ate yesterday, the day before, and three times last week. Thus, we’ve eaten more tacos than arepas, more pizza than chacapas, more pasta than pabellón.

It’s not like all the food here is terrible. The meat is hormone-free. The fact that we can get fresh produce—pineapples, mangos, passion fruit, guava, avocados, etc.—at the weekly Soto Rosa market is incredible. The fact that we leave the market with two backpacks full of food for about $8 blows my mind. Everything natural in Venezuela, whether it be fruit or waterfalls, is amazing. It’s just the manmade stuff, architecture and chow included, that’s lacking.

That said, here’s a quick run-through of the highs and lows of Venezuelan cuisine. Who knows? You might be here some day, sitting in a restaurant, wondering what pizca andina possibly could be. It ain’t in your dictionary, I’ll tell you that much.

Arepas: The culinary petroleum of Venezuela; without it, the country would die. Arepas are basically Venezuelan sandwiches, but thicker and heartier. They come in two varieties: corn and wheat. The corn ones are fried and often filled with everything from mini hot dogs to chicken salad to tuna to avocado to fried eggs. Rarely does a Venezuelan resist the temptation to throw some sort of condiment—mayonnaise or hot sauce—on top for good measure. The wheat arepas, popular here in the Andes, are often served as a light dinner with hot chocolate and shredded smoked cheese. They are not cut open and filled with anything; instead, they look a bit like an English muffin (sans nooks and crannies) crossed with flat bread. (Incidentally, while Venezuelans eat arepas at least three times a week, Brooke and I could not figure out how to make them for eight months. We couldn’t get the dough right; we told some friends after an English class, and they taught us in minutes. “What I want to know,” said our friend Verónica, “is what you’ve been eating for all this time!”

Cachapas: A distant cousin of the arepa, the cachapa is a sweet cornmeal pancake that is often filled with cheese and ham and folded like an omelet. They can be quite good, and the salt from the cheese mixes with the sugary cornmeal. We’ve made them ate home, but they’re best at the food stands at the market.

Pastelitos: Oh, pastelitos. These are like empanadas, which are also omnipresent, but generally smaller and sometimes filled with interesting things like leeks and ricotta. Mostly, they’re stuffed with cheese or cheese and ham. Again, throw on mayo and/or hot sauce. Stuff mouth. Rinse. Repeat.

Pasteles: A larger version of pastelitos, often sold in bakeries. Remember what I said about a limited diet? Well, if you could walk into a Venezuelan panadería you’d see what I mean. In the case are dozens of beautiful little pastries, all with different shapes, designs and sizes. One looks like it might be filled with guava, another with plum, another with ricotta, another with chocolate. But this is Venezuela. They are all filled with ham and cheese. All of them.

Pastelotes: The biggest version of the triumvirate. Limited, like I said.

Sancocho: We haven’t had much sancocho in Venezuela, but we did go to a sancocho festival in Cartagena. It’s a stew of whatever’s in the kitchen. It could be all fish and prawns and potatoes; it could be meat and onions and bones. You never know. Inconsistent in every way.

Carne fría: If you ever have the pleasure of going to a birthday party or religious ceremony in Venezuela in which food will be served, do not eat the mystery meat. Carne fría, or “cold meat”, has no specific name. No one knows what’s in this stuff. All that’s missing is a lunch lady with a hairy mole on her chin and tight elastic-waist pants serving up this crap. It’s tough, and cold, and served under a goopy, yucky sauce. That’s all you need to know.

Trucha: Every restaurant in the Venezuelan Andes serves trucha, or trout, and every place serves it in one of four or five ways: grilled, in garlic sauce, in garlic sauce with lime juice, covered in mushrooms and in a cheese sauce. Each way, the little trout comes out split down the middle, bones intact, with its tiny fishy eyes staring up at you. The cheek meat barely covers one of your fork’s tines.

Pabellón criollo: This translates to Creole shield, as in family seal, and it has an interesting back story. The plate comprises chopped meat, plain rice and black beans, and it represents the racial history of the country: The meat is brown (indigenous people), the rice is white (the Spanish) and the beans are black (African slaves). Sometimes it’s served with avocado and tajadas, or fried sweet plantains. No word on whom the green or yellow would represent.

Pizza: Wait, this isn’t Venezuelan? Then why are there pizza places on every block? Could it be that the food here isn’t that good? Nah. Didn’t think so.

Pizca andina: This is another Andean favorite. It’s a milk-based soup with cilantro, potatoes and, most importantly, a whole poached egg. When preparing the soup, the egg is thrown in at the last minute, and the soup is served as soon as it becomes solid.

Torta tres leches: My favorite Venezuelan food. As its name implies, tres leches is a cake drowned in three types of sweet milk/cream. It is spongy and sweet and strange, but I love it. Brooke bought me a whole cake for my birthday for a party we were planning, but then she fell ill and we had to cancel the whole thing. The cake, though, had to be eaten. It was supposed to fill like 10 people, but I ate it all in two days. Dee-lish.

Maybe it doesn’t sound that bad. We’re just sick of it all, though. That’s why we ate cauliflower and potato curry tonight. That’s why we ask our friends to bring us jars of peanut butter when they come to visit. And that’s why we continue to eat the sushi at a restaurant here called La Mamma: We know it isn’t that good, and we know that the rest of the menu consists of pizza and pasta dishes, and we know it’s expensive, but at least it’s different.


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