Corn is widely used in Venezuela: drinks, main dishes, snacks, deserts. There’s a lot of corn going on in a Venezuelan diet.
One of my favourite is Cachapas. Cachapas are fresh sweet corn pancakes. You usually find them at roadside stands or in small eateries. It’s not something you would make at home because it takes a long time to prepare.
So, when we could we would stop to eat Cachapas on the road or in small towns we were visiting. There was a spot in Villa de Cura where we would stop to take to Lela’s house.
Cachapas are made by scraping the corn kernels from the cobs, mixing them with masa harina and salt until the dough reaches thick and chunky dough. They’re grilled on both sides and served mostly with Queso de Mano, a mozzarella-type cheese only found in Venezuela. In restaurants people would eat them as sandwiches and would add pork, beef, chicken, ham.
Cachapas origin dates back to pre-Colombian times, when the indigenous people would grind corn with stone pestles and then cook it on clay budares – is a kind of a griddle, made from stone, clay or steel, that is often used to cook Arepas, Cachapas and Casabe.
Bringing Cachapas to Lela’s house was always welcome. Everyone who would stop by or come for a quick visit had to have a piece of Cachapas. Even if you had just eaten, you would still stuff yourself with Cachapas and Queso de Mano.
If the Cachapas were a day old, they don’t go to waste! They are cut into pieces and then deep-fried.
Another corn-gathering feast at Lela’s house was making empanadas. This would happen one night a week. Nelly, a woman who had been helped Lela for years in the house would come a couple of afternoons a week to clean the house and would finish off making dinner for the family. Sometimes, dinner would be for Lela, my great aunt who lived next door and two or three other aunts or cousins. Sometimes that number would triple and more cousins, more aunts and friends of the family would happen to be around and it would mean more dinner had to be made.
But one night a week without failure was empanada night.
Empanadas are corn patties filled with anything and everything. Mostly cheese, black beans, shredded chicken or beef. The dough is the same as the Arepas dough – masa harina, salt, oil and water – but with a touch of sugar. They’re made into balls, then flatten, added the filling and folded in half. Finally they are deep-fried into perfection! It’s crispy and that bit of sugar you add to the dough makes the empanada come out golden brown in the outside.
When Nelly made the arepas you couldn’t eat just one. She would make them small enough that you needed two or three of the different flavours to satisfy your tastebuds.
In Lela’s kitchen is where dinner would happen. It had a round table that would fit five – maximum six – people. If it were sandwich or Arepas nights we would take turns to sit at the table. The table would be set up with all kinds of toppings. Cheeses, sauces, butter, margarine, different condiments, different types of ham and cured meats. The table was by the window and right beside the door to the garden. At the other end of the kitchen were the gas stove and the yellow cupboards, with white formica countertops. Lela’s huge fridge – with the doors filled with magnets gifted by people from their travels or photos of kids – could fit anything and everything.
When you eat empanadas, you don’t need to set up a table. They come out of the frying pan; you wait a few minutes and grab one with a napkin. Give it a bite, wait until the steam comes out, blow inside and keep on giving it tiny bit bites to make sure you don’t burn yourself. If it was cheese you picked, you really had to wait. The cheese melts inside the empanada and creates this long string that if you don’t bite to break it, you would end up with the entire piece of cheese in your mouth and an empty empanada.
My favorite was always black beans empanada. Sometimes you would have black beans mixed in with cheese. The savoury taste of the beans and the cheese is a perfect combination with the slight sweetness of the dough of the empanada.