Arepas of Colombia

Arepas in their natural habitat: on a griddle.

The arepa is a food both endemic and ubiquitous in Colombia, analogous to the biscuits we get with meals in the U.S. In its most basic form, it is a fried corn pancake that comes in two forms: white cornmeal, known as far as I know only as an arepa, and yellow cornmeal, which is often referred to as a Chocolo/Choclo arepa. These arepas are eaten as sides during meals, stuffed to make portable sandwiches, or used as a base for delicious food towers in meals and snacks. This is an encyclopedia of the arepas we encountered on our travels, where they are found in the wild, and how they taste.

The white corn arepas

This variety of arepa varies in size but has a wide range and is the predominant arepa you’ll find in Colombia. You’ll know them by their snow white color.

The side arepa: an arepa that is given as a side to common meals, including cazuelas (mixed bowls of food—think bibimbap), planchas (plates of meat, beans, fries), and soups. Outside of nearly every food-serving venue, you can buy them premade in markets. It is most often a sad, flavorless hockey puck because it’s made of only white corn flour and water. See anything missing? (Hint: it’s salt and fat. Ever made a biscuit without either of those?)

The arepa is the round thing to the left. It’s fairly flavorless, and meant to offset the rich flavor of the main dish, here whole-roasted pig with some crackly skin.

The Don Jediondo side arepa: While it may seem that we have an unhealthy obsession with Don Jediondo around here, we promise you this isn’t biased. Unlike the standard side arepa, the Don Jediondo arepa is amazingly good even on its own! It’s served with their soup entrees or can be ordered separately, and tastes both salty and a bit sweet—delicious when dipped into the warm beef stew (Cuchuco) or the chicken soup. It’s also insanely dense, though, and two or three of these could make a meal.

The arepa can be found in the upper right corner…with a bite out of it. It’s still photogenic, right?

The arepa sandwich: Found at street stalls, this flat arepa gets stuffed with meats and veggies to make a portable sandwich. During breakfast, you can find them deep-fried with an egg in the middle, while at lunch and dinner they’re pre-grilled and then stuffed. The arepa itself is still a bit tasteless, but is helped by the savory fillings.

The remnants of a fried egg arepa. This one may actually be yellow corn, or the frying process may have changed the color. Either way, it falls into the less flavorful category of white arepas for us.

The cheesy arepa: This white corn arepa differs in that it’s packed with flavor because there are pieces of cheese mixed into the dough. These cheese bits melt into delicious stringy goo when the arepa is fried on a hot griddle, and the whole thing is then topped with savory or sweet sauces. A dessert favorite is this arepa topped with condensed milk.

A dessert arepa at a fair. Note the margarine mashed into the hot center of the arepa and the swirl of condensed milk.

The yellow corn arepas (Chocolo/Choclo)

This arepa is on average larger (around 6 inches across) and often has pieces of corn kernels in it. It tends to be more flavorful overall, but rarer, with specific stalls specializing in this type. Look for “arepas de chocolo” written on the wall or in the stall’s name.

The open-faced sandwich: This arepa is frequently eaten for breakfast and as a snack and consists of a chocolo arepa topped with butter or margarine, a slice of deli meat, and a wedge of queso fresco. We found the quality of meat and cheese to be a bit bad in some places, so we often ordered just the arepa with butter, which got us some odd looks.

Our first chocolo arepa, an open-faced breakfast sandwich made with spam and queso fresco. Breakfast of champions, this is.

The topped chocolo arepa: Studded with cheese and corn bits, this arepa acts as a delicious base for a tower of food. These beautiful dishes are most frequently found in nicer restaurants, and can be topped with vegetables, meat, and seafood and finished with a nice sauce. This was the first arepa I ever encountered thanks to Rubamba’s amazing arepas in New Haven, although we rarely encountered them in Colombia.

An arepa tower, covered in roasted veggies. We only found these in pricier restaurants, so we encountered them rarely. This may actually be a white corn variant, but the others we encountered (including those at Rubamba in New Haven) were yellow corn.

The dessert/snack Chocolo arepa: This arepa is similar to its white-corn cousin, but instead of being filled with cheese, it’s fried on a griddle in butter and then topped with a wedge of queso fresco and condensed milk or honey. This was arguably our favorite arepa of the bunch.

For a snack that’s both savory and sweet (and has some fiber from corn bits), look no further than this arepa.

Arepa distribution and DIY at home

Arepas drop off abruptly as you enter Ecuador to the south or Panama to the north, so get your arepa fix in Colombia (and Venezuela to the east). If there are any we missed (like the rare whole wheat arepa we encountered at Mercado Minorista—we didn’t get to try them), add them in the comments below.

An arepa stall at Mercado Minorista, with a baffling array of arepa and arepa ingredients.

For those of you looking to make your own arepas, here’s some help:

Serious Eats arepa guide, where there’s a link to a recipe

Chocolo Arepas – This is the first recipe I’m trying when I get home

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