CARACAS (Reuters) - It’s 7 a.m. in Caracas’ rundown Montecristo area and Miguel Segovia parks his police motorbike at a small kiosk. Dozens of locals hunch over greasy paper bags which spill out a jumble of meats, vegetables and cheeses.
The fillings are wedged into the arepa: a small flatbread that has been a source of nourishment and pride to Venezuelans since Spanish colonialists tried to usurp it centuries ago.
The arepa is to Venezuelans what the hamburger is to Americans or the tortilla to Mexicans.
As Segovia tucks into his chicken-filled arepa, others arrive and jostle for position in the crowd.
“Arepas are part of our culture,” said Segovia, wiping his mouth after his daily breakfast stop.
About the size of a compact disc, the corn or flour flatbread is fried, baked or even grilled before being filled with any of the ingredients that sit in steel tins on the counters of the country’s arepera outlets.
A 10-minute walk away, in Caracas’ upmarket Los Palos Grandes district, runners — up early to beat the heat — crowd inside the Arepa Factory. The young professionals are still kitted out in the tight shorts and skimpy tops that are a facet of Venezuela’s good looks culture.
“This is a gourmet arepera,” said owner Antonio Rinanza, “a bit more sophisticated.”
Arepas there are baked and filled with much healthier avocado, caprese salad and grilled cheeses. Rinanza believes the arepa’s success is down to its flexibility.
“You don’t get bored as quickly as with a hamburger or a sandwich,” he says, pointing toward the array of fillings on his counter.
The secret to making arepas is Harina PAN, a pre-cooked flour that revolutionized the lives of housewives when it was introduced in the late 1950s.
Just as Venezuelan women were beginning to enter the workplace and didn’t have the time to soak, peel and then pound corn kernels, Harina PAN allowed them to both earn a living and cook the iconic dish.
Venezuelans purchase a staggering 23 kg (50 lbs) of Harina PAN per person per year, rivaling the quantity of flour used in Mexico’s tortillas.
Venezuelans abroad are often desperate to stock up on the flour, leading to embarrassing rows at airports as customs officials mistake it for cocaine and confront well-meaning friends of emigrants.
But areperas are beginning to open up around the world.
“They are in Miami and New York. They’re going to open one in London,” said Adriana Vilar, a librarian at the Center for Gastronomic Studies (CEGA) in Caracas excitedly.
“The arepa is everywhere!”
Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar turned eating the arepa into a source of pride for locals as he helped defeat the Spanish in the 19th century. He was angry that they had attempted to usurp the cultural icon by growing their own wheat fields.
President Hugo Chavez was keen to jump on the bandwagon last year when he set up a chain of Socialist Areperas, a typically populist move whereby heavily subsidized arepas would be sold to Venezuelans as photos of Chavez stare down from the walls alongside posters decrying the evils of capitalist food.
Whatever the political bent of the arepas, Venezuelans are not keen to let them go.
“The arepa is always going to be rooted in the Venezuelan memory,” said Vilar. “It will never be lost.”