When I lived in Bogotá years ago I frequented a small restaurant called Aquí en Santafe in Chapinero (Carrera 7 # 62-63). If you weren’t looking for it you would probably walk right past it, because at the time the only thing that made it stand out on the busy street was the dark red door. The restaurant served traditional Colombian cuisine, and my favorite thing to order was the arepas. They had an amazing assortment of arepa toppings, and the arepa with avocado and cheese was my favorite. The school cafeteria also served them, and the teachers could usually count on finding some arepas and aji for breakfast in the teachers lounge.
Arepas are typical Colombian breads made from white or yellow precooked cornmeal known as masarepa (Brands: Goya, P.A.N.). They are very easy to prepare and make great snacks, breakfast, or appetizers. Arepas range in size from minis about 1-1/2 inches across to large plate sized, and I usually make a medium size about 3 inches across which is a good breakfast size. You can make them with or without cheese or just enjoy them with butter and salt or top them with aji, the Colombian salsa. The aji I remember from the school was green and slightly spicy. Some ajis have tomatoes, but this one just had onions, peppers, cilantro, and a bit of vinegar. I make aji at home using a bit of lime instead of the vinegar, and I tone down the heat a bit for the boys with an Anaheim pepper. For a spicier version of aji, use 2 jalapeño peppers with seeds instead of Anaheim. If you really want to set your head on fire, add a habanero.
A Word on Gluten-Free
Like cornmeal, masarepa is naturally gluten-free, though it might be processed in facilities that also process wheat products. Make sure you check the labels carefully to be sure.
COLOMBIAN AREPAS WITH CHEESE (AREPAS CON QUESO) AND AJI
- medium mixing bowl
- 10-inch cast iron skillet
- blender or food processor
- 1 cup masarepa (arepa flour)
- 1 cup shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
- 1/4 cup sunflower oil
- 1 scallion (white and green parts, thinly sliced)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 Anaheim chili (seeded and rough chopped)
- 2 limes (juiced)
- 1/4 cup water
- pinch salt
- In the medium bowl, toss together the arepa flour, cheese, and salt, then stir in the water until well mixed. Let the mixture stand until enough water is absorbed for a soft dough to form, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 6 pieces. Form the pieces into balls and flatten between your palms, gently pressing to form a 1/4-inch-thick patties, then gently press around side to eliminate cracks. Place the shaped arepas on wax paper.
- Heat oil in the cast-iron skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then fry arepas in 2 batches, turning over once, until deep golden in patches, about 8 to 10 minutes total per batch. Drain on paper towels.
- Put all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until slightly blended, but still a bit chunky. Dollop on top of the cooked arepas.