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The Iconic Arepa

The Ultimate Colombian Comfort Food is Delicious, Versatile, and Now Available Handmade in the Valley

The arepa has been peddled from Colombian streets and plazas for centuries. Even before the Spanish overtook South America, indigenous people were eating this staple dish; archaeologists have found the ancient clay slabs they were once cooked upon. Like pizza, burgers, or burritos, arepas prevail for obvious reasons: an ease and pleasure arising from, and speaking to, a sense of place. 

As such, the arepa is ubiquitous on the Colombian table or street corner. It can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It can be an appetizer, side, main meal, or even dessert. It’s prepared in as many ways as you or I might use tortillas or bread in recipes here in the U.S.

What is an arepa?

Envision a light, fluffy, cornmeal dough formed into flat patties (most often the size of burgers) around a queso blanco center. Picture (but don’t touch) the hot skillet necessary, or the smoking embers of a grill. Sizzling fats or oils will create the arepa’s notorious, crunchy, chewy, golden exterior: six to eight minutes a side. Once cooked, you then tear it open as one must. The moist corn masa steams. Tendrils of ooey gooey cheese stretch from one half to the other. 

Got your attention? 

There are infinite ways to enjoy arepas. You can stuff them with seasoned meats or fish, eggs, tomatoes, avocado. Serve them alongside black beans and rice or soups, to be dipped and drenched. As a dessert, you can stuff them with chocolate, or drizzle with syrups, anise, cinnamon, honey...so many ways to savor!

The Roaring Fork Valley can celebrate arepas now, too, thanks to 26-year-old entrepreneur Karen Liliana. Hailing from Bogotá, Colombia, Karen has been studying and practicing her English here for two years, in preparation to become a preschool teacher. She misses her country though, her people. Colombians value family closeness and social gatherings. So how does she touch base with her roots? As most of us often do, through the arts: literature, music, theater. 

And, food.

Karen points to the dearth of diversity in Latin American restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley as she discusses missing Colombia. 

“We have a lot of Mexican food, Salvadoran,” she says. “But nothing from Brazil, Peru, Colombia. I have to drive three hours to Denver to eat an arepa!” 

In sharing the story of arepas and her home country, Karen notes that Colombia is measured as one of the happiest nations in the world, and is the burgeoning Silicon Valley of America. It is known worldwide for delicious coffee, extraordinary cut flower exports, lively dancing, unrivaled bird watching, and jaw-dropping landscapes. It's no wonder that she misses home sometimes.

As a way to feel close to her cherished home and people, Karen turned to her favorite street food. Launching La Areperia this past spring, Karen prepares arepas “so people can experience something new and different—and delicious. They are gluten free and healthy. When someone cooks an arepa for you, it’s because someone loves you a lot,” she says in her charming Colombian accent. “Mothers and grandmothers cook arepas!”

Although she’s no abuela, La Areperia prepares arepas for sale, available Thursdays and Fridays for delivery. Five arepas per bag, $10. Order on Instagram at @LaAreperiia. 

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The Right Stuff

Thousands of years ago, the indigenous people of northern South America—in what is now Colombia and Venezuela—first created the arepa masa, or dough, from corn.

Wanting to try your hand at making arepas at home? An arepa made using standard cornmeal or corn flour is not going to turn into a true arepa. It will not come out as moist and light as the traditional dish, nor will it taste the same. True arepas are made from dried corn that was soaked and then manually pounded to remove the seed germ and the outer seed coat. The remaining part of the corn is then cooked and ground into a corn flour specific to arepa.

But you, you modern mountain people, don’t have to do all that work. Today, you can purchase bags of dried, precooked corn flour called “masarepa.” 

When you shop, you may find “masa harina” on City Market shelves. Masa harina, too, is a dried corn flour sans germ or seed coat, but lime is used to remove them, not manual pounding. Masa harina is one step closer to a true arepa, but an arepa made with masa harina will have more of a corn tortilla flavor. Masarepa produces a much lighter dough with a cleaner flavor!

  • Karen's arepas are "hecho con amor"—made with love!
  • Arepa stuffed with shredded chicken and quail egg.