¡A COMEEEER! This menacing screech (meaning time to eat) followed by sequential ear-piercing claps was the rude awakening my father saddled my sisters and me 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 our 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.
At around 15 I moved back in with my father, 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. I crystallized my mastery of making the basic arepa during this time. 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 represents 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 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 cheese. In recent years I’ve noticed restaurants like Caracas in New York taking the arepa to new heights. I have to admit they are tastier than anything I ever made growing up. Since trying those I have learned to be more creative with them and it’s 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
- 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 of hot milk or water equal to the amount of Masarepa, pouring it over the butter and cheese to help it melt. Knead the dough. 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.
- Pre-Heat oven to 375 F.
- 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 water occasionally. Form them into patties about the size of a hamburger. They should be smooth all around. If they crack severely, 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. Fry them until they are very lightly golden and crispy and then transfer them to the oven for another 12 minutes.
- You can eat these with some cheese, just butter or with fillings. If I do fillings it is usually leftovers. Good candidates include shredded, stewed meat, black beans, fried Latin cheeses (queso frito), and sweet plantains.