¡¡¡A COMEEEEER!!! (means “time to eat”in Spanish) This menacing screech followed by sequential ear piercing claps was the rude awakening my father saddled my sisters and I with on weekend mornings throughout our youth; I can still feel the shivers going down my spine. In order to put an end to it we’d carry ourselves downstairs like zombies to the kitchen where we’d find my equally disgruntled mother preparing the usual Colombian breakfast of arepas and huevos pericos; my father would be looking on incredulously in his wool poncho drinking his coffee. There was something sacred about the shared oppression my sisters, my mother and I all felt because of having to wake up in this manner. Together we would take refuge from the persistent annoyance by indulging in those most delicious Colombian cornmeal cakes, arepas.
After a long haul my parents went separate ways, and for a while I lived with my mother, during which time arepas were largely replaced with pancakes—I liken it to how the Spaniards started eating huge amounts of pork after they ejected their oppressor, the Moors.
Anyway, at around 15 I moved back in with the old man—now in Mexico—where the arepa eating commenced—this time without the early morning annoyances. My father must have given up on his ritual with the change in family dynamics. It was during these times that I crystallized my mastery of making the basic arepa. Less adult supervision and an overabundance of cheap Mexican herb, left me with both big appetite and big inspiration. Still associating the arepa with weekend mornings I’d make them on a lazy Saturday after waking up when I damn well pleased. On the side I’d have some eggs and a creamy cup of Nescafé. After this leisurely ritual I’d make my way out to the front patio and wait to hear the approaching bass rattle of whatever friend was coming to pick me up for a cruise. If it was Rata he’d be bumping some Cumbia out of the two fifteen inch subs in his trunk. I’d hop in the car and drive away into the Mexican sun feeling good.
I now try to replicate those lazy mornings when I can by putting on some psychadelic Cumbia, donning the wool poncho, and of course making some arepitas and Nescafé.
As you cook the recipe below throw this on to feel the vibe!
I came across this group years later but they tie in the whole picture for me. Cumbia is a music that has threads in Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries—this group is from the Amazon region in Peru. Juaneco y Su Combo is classified as cumbia de selva (“jungle cumbia”) which carries the more psychedelic flavor that better carries the spirit of those teenage years for me. It has a cheerful mid-tempo punch that works well with sunny mornings and the punchiness of elaborate and heavy Latin breakfasts. The short repetitive phrasing of the verses reminds me of the quick hard stopping commands that I recall my father and some of his brothers habitually speaking in; “¡Cóme un desayuno grande Mike!” (eat a big breakfast!) or “¡despierte temprano!” (wake up early) or simply “¡JUICIO!” (meaning something like “discipline!”) Besides all that just check out the damn ponchos the guys on the cover are wearing. It’s just perfect.
About the arepas; the ones I grew up with were rather basic. The most we ever added was some cheese. In recent years I’ve noticed restaurants like Caracas in New York taking the arepa to a whole other level. At first, I was a hater, but I have to say they are tastier than anything I ever made growing up. Since trying those I have learned to throw everything but the kitchen sink in them and it’s only been a life improvement. Follow the guidelines below for the arepas and pick and choose your own fillings using some of the suggestions. Make these when you have some free time on an early morning and not when you’re in a rush. Now…
Goya Masarepa -(buy the white one, not the yellow)
Butter- about 2 tbsp per cup of Masarepa
Salt- a pinch per cup of Masarepa
Warm Whole Milk -add a cup for every cup of Masarepa and adjust as needed
Cheese (optional) Cotijo or Mozzarella
- Start with the arepas. Put the Masarepa in a mixing bowl, mix it with the salt. Place butter—and cheese if you choose—on top of the mixture. Add an amount warm milk equal to the amount of Masarepa, pouring it over the butter and cheese to help it melt. Get your hands in the mixing bowl and start kneading the dough. You should add more milk or Masarepa to the mix a little at a time until you have an even texture similar to moist play-dough with no lumps.
- Form balls somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. Keep your hands moist during this process by running them under the sink every so often. Then form them into patties about a quarter to a half inch thick and about the diameter of a normal hamburger patty. They should be smooth all around. This takes some practice. If they severely crack, break them apart, add a bit more milk, and try again. If they crack slightly around the edges, just get your hands wet and try to smooth out the cracks (this is what you want). If they don’t appear to crack at all they may be too moist.
- Set a pan or griddle to medium to low heat, add some butter and set them in without overcrowding. Do this in batches and take your time. They will take about fifteen minutes each side. When you can slide them around because they have a hard crisp they are probably ready to flip. Do the same on the other side. While they are cooking you can work on the other stuff. When they are done set them on paper towels. *You can also make the patties and store them uncooked in the fridge to be fried later.
- Choose a few fillings (sweet plantains, black beans, shredded chicken, shredded beef, shredded pork, mozzarella or cotija cheese, queso frito, avocado, cilantro, fried egg, hot sauce…..) and follow instructions below for prep.
- Fill the arepa. (You can either cut the arepa all the way open like a sandwich or slice into it like a pita pocket. If you make the arepas very thin you can also just put the ingredients on top. Any of these ways works well.)
For Sweet Plantains
- The easiest way to do this is to buy black plantains, peel them open and slice them on a bias at about half an inch.
- With some neutral oil, fry them flipping once on a high heat and then immediately reducing the heat. They can burn easily because of their high sugar content but you still want to give them the outer crisp.
- Once they are browned and caramelized take them out, put them on a paper towel and sprinkle them with salt.
For Queso Frito
- Ask for this white block of cheese at the grocery store or find it among the other Latin items in the cheese section. Slice it into quarter inch slices.
- Cover the slices in cornstarch. Remove the excess.
- Fry quickly on both sides in a coating of hot neutral oil.
For the meat
- Slow cook your choice of meat with your choice of seasonings beforehand and then shred. Often times I will just shred up whatever leftover meat I have.
The other sides are self-explanatory or don’t require prep.
Onion or Scallion
- For this recipe, you very simply dice up onions or scallions and tomatoes. Maybe one tomato and half an onion for 4 eggs.
- You sautee them low with olive oil for a few minutes.
- Then you pour the eggs over, turn the heat to medium, and scramble until done but still moist.
- This is instant coffee so just heat up some milk and put one tablespoon of Nescafé and half a tablespoon of sugar—or to taste. You can drink the expensive stuff later but trust me even my Abuelito in Colombia who was surrounded by all that great coffee liked to drink this creamy alternative instead.