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Venezuelan delight crossing borders and satisfying cravings

AFP – From the streets of Caracas to trendy eateries in New York, Paris and Tokyo, the arepa, a humble cornmeal flatbread, is riding a wave of Venezuelan emigration and feeding a craving for exotic and gluten-free food.

Prepared in just minutes by forming a ball from pre-cooked cornflour and water, it’s flattened and then grilled. The arepa can be whatever you want: filled with anything from cheese and meat to beans or seafood, even greens.

A favourite in Venezuela is the reina pepiada – a mix of chicken, mayonnaise and avocado.

The viuda or widow, comes without a filling – the ideal accompaniment for a soup but also the only option for many among Venezuela’s poor. “The arepa is the daily bread of the Venezuelan. He eats it every day, every night,” said Patrick Ribas, who translated into French the book Arepologo dedicated to the maize delicacy.

“You can put anything you want in it. It’s a dish. You can also eat it on its own when you don’t have much money. This is unfortunately the case for many Venezuelans,” he told AFP.

According to Arepologo author Ricardo Estrada Cuevas, the arepa is a food that has no social class.

Cook Alfredo Lopez prepares arepas in the kitchen of the ‘Arepa Lady’ restaurant in the Queens borough of New York City, United States. PHOTO: AP

“It is eaten by everyone, from the simplest and most humble people to (someone who is) a manager,” he told AFP.

“It is a food that everyone eats, in the same way, with the same fillings, with the same characteristics. Where there is a Venezuelan, there are arepas.”

Amid a political and economic crisis that has seen their country’s gross domestic product shrink by 80 per cent between 2013 and 2022, more than seven million Venezuelans – almost a quarter of the population – have emigrated in recent years. And they’ve taken their cuisine with them.

Marlyn Quiroga, 47, was a lawyer in Venezuela but left five years ago for New York. She did odd jobs until 2021, when she started an arepa catering business.

This despite saying she did not know how to cook an egg before then. “I went door-to-door in Queens: to beauty salons, offices, clinics. I gave away free samples” to promote the business, Quiroga told AFP.

Success came quickly, said the boss of Arepa LaNewyorkquina, explaining that more and more people in the “City That Never Sleeps” now prefer gluten-free arepas to bread.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, “It’s a change from the ubiquitous hamburger,” said 63 year-old digital designer Jean-Francois Lamaison and diner at the Venezuelan restaurant Ajidulce in Paris.

Ajidulce boss Luis Fernando Machado, a former petroleum engineer who moved to the French capital in 2011, told AFP he started with a food truck but now employs 10 people.