Viva Venezuela

Corn, cheeses, and vegetable salsa deliver the culinary cues in this South American country.

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.

 

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