Every Thursday and Saturday morning in Caracas, Venezuela’s bustling capital, the Mercadito de Chacao fills with vendors selling all the country’s farmers have to offer, from Andean potatoes grown in the mountainous west, to bananas and cassavas from the Amazonian region in the south, to an array of European-style and locally produced cheeses.
Spanish colonists influenced Venezuela’s cuisine, as they did the food of many South American countries. Yet the country’s geographic diversity sets its food apart from that of the rest of the continent. Its proximity to the Caribbean, for example, results in many tropical ingredients being incorporated with the corn, peppers, tomatoes, and other produce used by local cooks. This blend of cultural influences and ingredients makes Venezuelan fare unique.
Take the arepa, a signature dish of Venezuela. The flat corn cakes are baked, sautéed, or grilled. Simple to prepare, the baked arepa can be enjoyed plain as a snack or split open and filled with beans, vegetables, and flavorful cheeses for an entrée. Our versions offer baked cakes topped with a savory tomato salad or black beans. Grated cheese is often mixed into arepa dough for added interest, and the dough sometimes serves double duty as dumplings.
Accordingly, Venezuelan cooking uses a variety of cheeses. Although authentic Venezuelan cheese is difficult to find in the States, it’s easy to substitute more readily available Mexican cheeses. Venezuelan cooks are also fond of European cheeses, from Edam, Gouda, and Gruyère to Parmigiano-Reggiano―all of which are sold in American supermarkets.
Here we offer several recipes appropriate for a classic Venezuelan vegetarian meal. An avocado salsa (a relish of avocado, tomato, onion, and hot peppers, likely influenced by the Mexican guacamole) is a condiment. And we have a cebiche―traditionally a salad of fresh, usually raw, seafood marinated in acidic citrus juices, spicy jalapeños, and herbs―made with hearts of palm and chayote. Round out the meal with our arepas, served plain or with various toppings and cheeses, or our version of Venezuelan black beans and rice.
Very Venezuelan ingredients
Here are some ingredients you’ll need to make our Venezuelan dishes.
Plantains: Latin American recipes use plantains at three different levels of ripeness: Verde, or green, are firm and starchy and used to make dumplings; pintón are sweet and yellow with some black spots and work perfectly for sautéing; and pasado are black, very soft and sweet, and are roasted or mashed in desserts.
Arepa flour: Also called masarepa, harina precocida, or masa al instante, this is made from finely ground, precooked corn and used to prepare dumplings and fritters in addition to arepas. You can find it in most Hispanic markets and on the Latin/ethnic-food aisle of some supermarkets. Be sure not to substitute the easier-to-find masa harina, a Mexican product used to make tortillas and tamales―your arepas won’t taste quite right.
Chayote: Also known as the mirliton or vegetable pear, this wrinkled, pear-shaped vegetable is used raw in salads or cooked a variety of ways throughout Latin and South America. It can be found at many supermarkets, often near the mangoes and other tropical produce. Look for heavy chayotes that are uniformly bright green, with no brown spots or blemishes; store up to one week in a zip-top plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Cheese: Venezuelan cooks commonly use European cheeses like Edam, Gouda, and Parmesan, which you can find in any supermarket. While we use many of the more common European and American cheeses in our recipes, we find the Latin versions worth procuring for more authentic results. Mexican Oaxaca cheese has a texture and stringiness like mozzarella, and queso fresco, “fresh cheese” in Spanish, is a mild crumbling cheese. You’ll likely find both in Latin groceries or large supermarkets.