I’ve never been to Venezuela, but it sounds like one of the most varied and incredible places in the world. Its geography ranges from the northern tip of the Andes Mountains to the Amazon rainforest to the Caribbean coast. The culinary scene draws on numerous influences, from Native American to Europe to West African. This region of South America holds some of my favourite cuisines – the mixture of influences and inclusion of local tropical ingredients with imported Mediterranean and African flavours produces pure bliss. Venezuela is also renowned for producing the most Miss Universe winners in the world, so perhaps the cuisine can also make you more beautiful? Food for thought anyway…
Pabellón criollo is often touted as Venezuela’s national dish. The name roughly translates into “Creole pavilion”, which I suspect you are as befuddled by as I am. I’ve had a cursory search for the etymology, but it may be one of those connections lost to time. The core of the dish consists of rice, stewed black beans with onions and capsicum and shredded beef. There are myriad additions to this basic triad that have acquired delightful slang names. For instance, should you desire the addition of fried plantain bananas, you would ask for your pabellón criollo “con barandas” (with guard rail), as the bananas keep the food from falling off the plate. However, if you were more in the mood for a fried egg on top of your meal, you would ask for it “a caballo” (on horseback), and then imagine eggs riding horses for your entire meal. I decided to make my pabellón criollo with barandas (fried plantain banana) and avocado. I had previously seen the end result of people making roses from avocados, so bravely decided to give it a try, with the secret reassurance that guacamole was always an option to hide even the most disastrous of failures. However, to my surprise, it was very easy to make after a short youtube tutorial, and the one in the picture is my first attempt! I was lucky in that I think I had perfect avocados for the job – just ripe and still quite firm. I think if you attempted this on a mushy avocado it may not be as simple, but if you have the right ones, then by all means give it a go. It is one of the most impressive and least time-consuming things I’ve made.
I’ve seen arepas popping up more and more in street stalls and markets around Brisbane, and I must say I’m pleased. “Arepa” actually refers to the bread, which are flat round buns made from unleavened corn meal, often fried, but also sometimes baked or steamed. Arepas can be served whole with a spread on top, or split into two to make “sandwiches”. I have been through indescribable trials and tribulations sourcing corn meal in Brisbane. The first issue I had was distinguishing what international recipes meant by saying “corn meal” or “corn flour”. For me, corn flour is the white powder that is thinner than icing sugar that can be used to thicken sauces, also sometimes called corn starch. However, I can tell you from tragic personal experience that this sort of corn flour does not make good dough, and that if you try, you will discover a substance that I could only describe as “non-Newtonian”. Very coarsely-ground corn, on the other hand, I know as polenta, which is a bit tricky to find in a “non-instant” format, but still possible, and also unfortunately does not make a bread-like dough… But if you want corn flour ground to a similar consistency to plain wheat flour? Forget it. I went to grocery stores selling teff flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour, but never corn flour! Isn’t corn one of the most consumed crops on the planet? Is this some sort of conspiracy? Eventually I found some at a Latin-American deli very far from my house, but I remain incensed by the inconvenience. It turns out arepa flour is especially complicated because it is made without removing the outer shells of the kernels, making it coarser than “masa”, which is yet another type of corn flour used to make soft tortillas. I took the arepas to a gathering of family and friends, and put out fillings that would allow combinations pictured: like avocado, chorizo and tomato and coriander salsa; fried onion, capsicum and pulled pork; black beans, queso fresco and fried plantain bananas; radishes, coriander and shredded beef. I love arepas because there’s such a variety of wonderful ingredients to fill them with, and they’re great to share with fussy eaters because there will always be something for everyone.
Hallacas are a common celebratory dish of Venezuela, almost exclusively served during the Christmas period. I love meals that are made around holiday seasons, as they always taste of home cooking, family and the special kind of love that can only be expressed by spending hours preparing food. This dedication is even more marked for Christmases in the southern hemisphere, because cooking intricate meals also means sweating over a hot stove in unimaginable humidity. Trust me, I know this well… I suspect that the cooks of the house in Venezuela encouraged the tradition of only making the labour-intensive hallacas for Christmas, because it has become a bonding activity that all of the family does together, making hundreds of hallacas to freeze and eat well into the new year. Hallacas consist of a dough made from the same corn meal as the arepas, coloured yellow with anatto, flavoured with stock and lard . A shell of dough is then stuffed with a precooked mixture of shredded pork, beef, bacon, onion and capsicum, spiced with garlic, cumin, oregano and red wine. Decorative flourishes of green stuffed olives, raisins and parsley are also added to the stuffing, then the dough is sealed all around and wrapped up in banana leaves and steamed. The banana leaves actually impart a strong flavour to the dough, so while they can be a bit difficult to source, they do make a difference to the taste. I managed to find some frozen banana leaves in an Asian grocery store and they worked very well. The hallacas were delicious, and beautifully represent a fusion of all of the different Venezuelan influences, with ingredients from Europe (olives and raisins), indigenous Venezuela (corn and anatto) and Africa (banana leaves).
Pisca Andina is a hot hearty soup that is commonly eaten for breakfast in the Andes of Venezuela. The “Andina” part of the name means “of the Andes”, but the “pisca” element is harder to determine. I’ve found Spanish translations of pisca meaning “flashes”, “harvest”, “sprinkle” and “prostitute”, and I’m still unclear about which bestows its connotation to the dish. Personally, I hope harvest… Traditionally pisca Andina is a mixture of chicken broth, chopped potatoes, poached egg, coriander, garlic, onion, milk, white semi-firm cheese, lemon juice, with other optional vegetables like carrots or corn. It may seem a little strange to have a hot soup with a milk basis, but we add cream to soups all the time, so don’t knock it ’til you try it. I also added some shredded chicken to mine, which is not always strictly part of the recipe, but I’m sure the Venezuelans wouldn’t turn it down. It tasted delicious – so warm and comforting, and somewhat similar to Asian-style chicken and corn soups that I’ve tried. I could just imagine waking up to a big bowl of this in the snow of the Andes mountains, and consequently mustering the courage to venture out into the wilderness.