If you’re from Colombia, you may well be thinking yourself ‘The Great Arepa Debate? What debate? Whether arepas are awesome or incredible?’. This is because here in Colombia, arepas are a staple of the diet, akin to pasta in Italy, cheese in France or beer in England. As one of our Twitter friends says, ‘if you don’t like arepas you’re not really Colombian’.
Well, many of us living here in Colombia aren’t Colombian, and therein lies the debate. Many foreigners don’t see the fuss about arepas at all (although they’ll never admit it to a Colombian), and will go out of their way to avoid them. They see them as bland, overhyped and a poor replacement for bread.
Those passionate Colombians will tell you very forcefully that they’re delicious and refuse to hear otherwise, and many other travellers agre, but what’s the truth? Delicious snack or bland taste-bud attack? We here at the Colombia Travel Blog are never ones to shy away from controversy and decided to wade into the debate bravely (stupidly?) by going out onto the street and trying some arepas for ourselves, in the hope to settle once and for all whether the arepa is worth all the fuss.
The first time I was exposed to arepas in a serious way was back when Marcela and I lived together in Buenos Aires. As with everybody – I assume – one of the things that I miss the most about my country of birth is the food, but I had never seen anyone as determined to get her arepas as Marcela. She really didnt spare any effort to have her weekly assortment of Arepas, even if it meant having to cross the whole city to San Telmo to get them. I soon came to realize it was the same with all Colombians I met abroad.
So for the (almost) 2 years we lived in Buenos Aires before moving for good to Colombia, I had Arepas almost every.single.day. And at the beginning I really didnt get what was all the fuss about Arepas… why should I have to wait till they get cooked when I could just put a slice of delicious bread in the toaster for 30 seconds and have a sandwich?
Marcela, as she does frequently, proved me wrong. Cooking an Arepa is really an art. It has to be at the right temperature, cooked right amount of time and only then can you spread the delicious melting butter on top of it along with some salt. That first bite is like heaven; a crunchy corn flavour that melts in your mouth.
Now that I actually live in Colombia we don’t eat arepas as frequently as we used to and to be honest I think I started to appreciate more the arepa culture even more by having them just once or twice a week.
So when we decided to write a post about arepas I couldnt be happier. The one I tried for lunch today – the ranchera – was stuffed with guacamole, chicken, beef, cheese and egg… how could I say no? Are arepas better than tortillas and/or bread? Well, I don’t think so, they are just delicious on their own way. They’re quite different, and, once in a while, they’re a delicious treat.
I’ve been in Colombia over a year so by now I pretty much know what to expect from arepas, and I can’t say I’m a fan. Nonetheless, I went into today’s test with an open mind and I was ready to be surprised. Then again, every time I’m told by a Colombian to try a different style of arepa, I go in with an open mind and I’m severely disappointed. But on to today’s arepa: the Arepa Costeña.
Stuffed with shredded meat, an egg and some of that famous queso Costeño, I’m actually optimistic. I put the first mouthful in and… I’m pleasantly surprised. The filling is good, and my first mouthfuls are all full of meat. Great stuff. Unfortunately, I then carry on eating and the further in I get, the less meat I have to eat, and the more arepa I’m faced with.
Without the tender saltiness of the meat, even the ‘salsa picante’ I put on the arepa doesn’t do more than add a layer of flavour on top of the arepa: I can still taste (strong word) the arepa itself, and this, unfortunately, is the problem.
I find arepas so insanely bland sometimes my tastebuds get mildly offended. I’m mostly enjoying this one because of the filling, but when I eat tortilla or bread, I like everything about it. One bite of arepa to me tastes like when you eat way too much of one thing and you can’t stomach any more, and as I finish my half delicious arepa, I can’t help but feel all the salt and butter in the world can’t save it from being bland, stodgy, and ultimately not as good as bread.
I try to like arepas, I really do. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a cheap snack that’s available everywhere? But as I struggle to put away the final bites of my now completely plain arepa, I can’t help but wonder why Colombians are so adamant that the arepa is something you have to try when you travel here. In my opinion, there’s so much better food here in Colombia than the arepa (like the soups) and it’s time we focused on them.
Still, today’s arepa has made me think: a little arepa-based imagination and things can get better.