The arepa is a corn-based bread from the northern Andes in South America (from countries like Colombia and Venezuela), now spread to other areas in modern Latin American countries. It is similar to the mesoamerican tortilla. Arepas are most popular in Colombia and Venezuela.
It is believed that arepa is a word from the dialect of the Caracas Indians (north coast of Venezuela) that translates into maize (corn).
In Eastern Venezuela, besides the most common variety of 3 to in diameter and half an inch thick, you can find larger arepas in diameter and two inches thick, made with either white or yellow corn. In the Andean West, you may find flat arepas, which are a quarter of an inch or less in thickness and 3 to in diameter. An arepa is often eaten as a sandwich; it is split in half and filled with cheese, deli meats, or other fillings, in which case it is called arepa rellena or a Venezuelan "tostada", although the latter term is not in common use anymore. An arepa is also sometimes dressed with toppings and eaten open-faced.
On the Caribbean coast of South America, the arepa-like cornmeal cake is often deep-fried and, in one variation, where a raw egg is added midway through the frying process, it becomes the arepa ´e huevo. This latter variation was most likely devised by the African slaves near Cartagena de Indias.
There are two ways to make the dough: the original, highly laborious method requires the maize grains to be soaked, then they are peeled and ground, this is done by pounding the grains in a larger mortar (pilón) to remove the pericarp and the seed germ, only the cotyledons of the maize seed are used to make the dough, this product (mortared maize or "maíz pilado") was normally sold as dry grain which were then boiled and ground into the dough.
The second, easier, and most popular method today is to buy pre-cooked corn in a dry flour form, specially prepared for making arepa and many other maize based dough dishes (hallacas, bollos, tamales, empanadas, chicha, etc.). The most popular brand name of corn flour in Venezuela is Harina P.A.N., and in Colombia is Areparina; it's usually made from white corn but there are yellow corn varieties available. This product was invented in the 1950s by Dr. Caballero Mejias, a Venezuelan engineer who used the profits from his patent to finance a Technical Schools system. The precooked form was widely industrialized from there. The flour is mixed with water and salt (some people add oil, eggs and/or milk). After being molded by hand, or in a special mold, into a patty, the dough is fried, grilled or baked. This production of maize is unusual for not using the nixtamalization or alkali cooking process to remove the pericarp. Arepa flour is lower in nutritive value than nixtamal with protein value reduced by 50% though protein digestion may be higher.
Electric arepa makers are not popular in Colombia.
The arepa was the corn bread of the Timoto-cuicas, a native American nation that lived in the northern Andean mountains of Venezuela who learned how to grow maize from the Quechuas (Peru) and Mayas (Mexico), where the crop originated. The larger native American nations of Venezuela (Arawaks in the central plains and Caribes in the East and in the rain forests, from Argentina to the Islands named for them) widely used the form of bread called Casabe, made from Yuca roots. With the colonization process the maize (corn) bread was widely spread throughout the country and into Colombia, then named Nueva Granada or Santa Fe.
Both Colombians and Venezuelans view the arepa as a traditional national food. The arepa has a long tradition in both countries with local recipes that are very delicious and varied.
Their preparation depends on two main factors: the personal taste or preference of each individual and the region in which they are made. The result is a wide variety of arepa types:
Besides plain, there are other kinds of arepas:
While less popular than in Venezuela, sandwich-like filled arepas are sold throughout Colombia as well.
Companies like "Don Maíz" have begun to market less-traditional kinds of arepas in Colombian grocery stores that are nonetheless growing in popularity. These include yuca-flavored arepas (yuca bread is more traditional) and arepas made of brown rice and sesame seeds.
In Costa Rica, arepas are made from batter, and are similar to pancakes, but taste slightly different. In Mexico there is a similar dish that are fried and called gordita not to be confused with tortillas. In El Salvador, similar flat cakes are called pupusas, and the most important difference is that the flat cake is filled before it is cooked, most commonly with some pork, white cheese or black beans.