A South American staple, arepas are cornmeal cakes that are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. They can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients, from cheese to chicken salad, and the ingredient list is short.
Three years ago, I tagged along on one of my husband’s business trips to Florida, and we serendipitously timed our arrival in Miami with the city’s annual Art Deco celebration in South Beach. We were there for two short days but enjoyed the time so much that we’ve turned the quick trip into an annual getaway. (I did convince him to stretch the trip to three days and my in-laws have been gracious enough to take care of our sons.😊)
Throughout the weekend, Ocean Drive, which is the main drag located a stone’s throw from the beach, is closed to traffic and filled with people from all over the world, countless street vendors, performers, antique cars, and lots and lots of food.
On our initial trip three years ago, we couldn’t help but notice the incredible number of stands selling arepas. Golden in color and oozing with cheese, we tried these savory corn cakes immediately and have enjoyed them every year since. And to tide us over in between visits, I figured out how to make this quintessential street food at home — after much research and a good bit of trial and error!
To describe them a little better, arepas are traditional, everyday Colombian and Venezuelan food, often split like an English muffin to make a sandwich with fillings like cheese, avocado, pulled pork, and chicken salad. If you think about what tortillas are to Mexico and bread is to Italy…that’s what arepas are to these South American countries.
When I first attempted to replicate this recipe, I used masa harina. The arepas were good, but not good enough to share here. Eventually, I read that the difference between “masa harina” and “masarepa” was small but significant. Both are easy to find forms of corn flour made with cooked corn kernels.
With masa harina, the kernels have been dried and soaked in limewater. Masa harina is typically used to make corn tortillas; masarepa is traditionally used for arepas, empanadas, and tamales…and it made the textural difference I had previously been missing in my arepas.
Like many ethnic foods, there is more than one “traditional” way to make arepas. The recipe varies from family to family and country to country. Some people add butter or an egg yolk to the batter. Some add cheese or sugar, some don’t. Milk can be used instead of water.
Arepas are sometimes sautéed, often fried, and occasionally baked. In trying all of these options and more, I settled on the following version of this South American staple for its combination of traditional taste, texture, and ease of preparation.
Arepas can be enjoyed as we first enjoyed them — with a filling of melty cheese — or stuffed with a variety of fillings from chicken salad or avocado and tomato slices to pulled pork. They’re equally tasty served like an English muffin with a thin spread of butter or jam. I often eat them for breakfast in place of the bread in an egg and avocado sandwich.
Yield: 4 servings
- 1 cup masarepa (precooked cornmeal*)
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded mozzarella, cheddar, or Mexican blend cheese**
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup warm water (plus a little more as needed)
- 1/2 tablespoon each butter and olive oil
- Optional: 1 egg yolk****
Mix the precooked cornmeal, cheese, salt. Add the water and stir until combined, getting rid of any lumps and adding just enough extra water, as needed, to moisten the mararepa. Cover and let the mixture rest for 10-15 minutes.
Using your hands, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and flatten gently to create a disk, about 3/4-inch thick. (The arepa will be similar in size to an English muffin. You want just enough thickness to be able to slice it in half after cooking. If the dough isn’t totally smooth when shaping, wet your hands and smooth out any cracks.)
Heat the butter and oil in a 9- to 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. (Cast iron works well. It’s fine to use a bigger skillet than stated; you may simply need a little more butter and oil to lightly coat the surface.) Add the arepas and cook for 5 minutes on the first side. Flip and cook for 3-5 minutes on the second side. Try not to disturb them too much while cooking. Peek underneath towards the end of the cooking time to check for patches of golden color. The arepas should have a slightly crispy exterior without being overly brown. This way, the insides will be cooked but tender with a bit of moisture.
Cut the arepas in half and stuff with your filling of choice***…or spread the halves with a little butter and serve instead of a roll or biscuit as a side to soup, salad, or your morning eggs. Arepas are delicious served hot but can also be enjoyed at room temperature.
- *Masarepa is precooked cornmeal and is also called arepa flour, harina precocida, or masarepa. It can be found in the Latin section of most supermarkets in white or yellow varieties. I use yellow, but they can be freely substituted. Popular brands include Goya and P.A.N. This is not the same as masa harina, which I have used–it works but the arepas aren’t quite as good.
- **The cheese enhances the flavor and texture of the arepas, although it may be omitted if a dairy-free option is needed. In this case, add an extra pinch or two of salt and use all olive oil when sautéing.
- ***Arepas can be enjoyed as we first enjoyed them–with a filling of melty cheese–or stuffed with a variety of fillings from chicken salad to avocado slices or pulled pork. They are especially tasty served like an English muffins with a thin spread of butter. I often eat them for breakfast as the “bread” for an egg sandwich with slices of avocado. Sweet versions with jam or honey would also be good.
- ****I have made a version that included stirring in an egg yolk after the hot water has been added. I can’t decide if I prefer the arepas with or without it. It adds a little creaminess…feel free to offer an opinion on this if you try both ways!
- Tip: Like cornbread, arepas tend to dry out after the first day. To remedy this, I wrap and store any uneaten arepas in the fridge. (Cool first.) Before serving, I wrap the arepa in a damp paper towel and warm in the microwave. This imparts moisture and magically refreshes the arepa.
Similar in size and shape to an English muffin, arepas are cooked to a light golden brown on the outside, which allows the inside to cook through yet remain tender and moist.
Beyond the white sand beaches and fabulous restaurants, Miami’s South Beach is known for its Art Deco architecture. Buildings painted in pastel colors that light up in neon at night are known for their streamlined designs that are punctuated with geometric shapes and curved ornamental details.
This is the Miami home where Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace lived. It’s on Ocean Drive, South Beach’s main drag. Interestingly, he first came to Miami as a wardrobe consultant for the 1980s TV show Miami Vice. He liked it, so he stayed. Sadly, Versace was shot to death on the front steps as he returned from a morning walk in 1997.
More of the classic Art Deco architecture…
…and more delicious street food.
Making friends near the beach, blue sky and white sand.Helpful tip: Like corn bread, arepas will dry out faster than many baked goods. To refresh them, simply wrap them in a damp paper towel and warm in the microwave.