Are arepas, pupusas and gorditas the same thing? It could be a fair question. The answer: Yes and no. Both are valid responses because while all three share a key ingredient – corn – the appearance and taste of each is very different.
Arepa: the bread of Venezuelans
Such is the meaning of the arepa, a kind of round bread made of corn, that Venezuela’s national library each year organizes an exhibition dedicated to the queen of food accompaniment in this Caribbean nation.
To talk about the arepa is to talk about Venezuela, since it is part of the culture and the daily meal. It is considered the most authentic Venezuelan culinary expression.
For Venezuelans, the arepa is a national symbol as it can be found in any city.
Its preparation hails back to indigenous ancestors who planted, harvested and processed corn.
It is made with dough fashioned from corn that is cooked and ground. The natives ground the corn between two flat and smooth stones and then they shaped small balls that were cooked on a budare or comal, a round, flat sheet made of clay. Now steel griddles are used to cook the arepas, although one can still find the clay versions.
The arepa can be found in the most honorable table, as well as in the most humble, on any corner of the city or in the smallest town, in homes or in restaurants, or in the plentiful areperas found in Venezuelan cities.
For some it is the best breakfast, and an excellent complement to the first course at lunch and dinner.
It has different characteristics in different regions, but in essence it is the same and unique arepa. The thinnest ones are called “telitas” and are typical of the Andean region. Thicker and rounder ones are made in the central region. Large ones, either fried or baked, are usually found in the East. Arepas are prepared with chicharrón (fried pork skin); sweet arepitas have a slight aniseed flavor; and arepas “peladas” (scraped), made with ash, are found mainly in the west of the country.
They are usually eaten filled with cheese and butter, shredded or roasted meat, with ham, or with just about anything you can think of – or find.
A freshly cooked arepa, filled with a salty cheese, is heavenly for the palate of the diner. Served with buttermilk and shredded meat, one gets a wonderfully typical breakfast.
Pupusas: symbol of El Salvador
The gastronomic importance of pupusas, which are thick corn tortillas stuffed with many ingredients, is so serious that since April 1, 2005, by official decree of the government of El Salvador, pupusas are the national dish, and for this reason the second Sunday of November was declared as the National Day of the Pupusas.
The ingredients for the filling usually include queso fresco, chicharrón and beans.
Pupusas have become ambassadors for the smallest country in Central America, due to the special aspect of the food, which allows diners to enjoy fully every bite of its savory filling. This is because the pupusa has two layers, with the filling in the middle. It could be described as a pre-Columbian sandwich.
Depending on one’s cooking skills, the famous pupusas can be made in two ways. It is suggested that beginners take a spoonful of dough and flatten it with any flat object into a circular shape. Next, cover the dough with the filling but don’t cover the edges. Finally, cover with another flattened piece of dough, and seal the edges carefully.
Those with more experience can make a ball with two tablespoons of batter. Use fingers to make a hole in the center of the ball, which is where one puts the filling. Seal the hole and the ball is shaped in the palms of the hands, making sure that the pupusa has a circular shape.
With both methods, special care should be taken to make sure the shape is circular, that the filling is well distributed, that the layer of dough is not too thick, and that there are no holes through which the filling can leak out.
Similar to the Venezuelan arepas, the pupusas are cooked on a griddle or comal.
Gorditas: Queen of the fried tortilla
The versatile Mexican cuisine reinvented tortillas and turned that food into a gordita, making it more irresistible, perhaps because it is dipped into boiling oil. Besides, how can one resist those hand-made tortillas, fried, and stuffed with chicharrón or queso fresco?
There are different versions of the gordita; some are baked and not fried. Also, there are those who fill them after they are fried, opening them in half and filling them with cheese or meat. Also, in some regions of Mexico, such as Durango, wheat flour is used instead of corn flour.
The gorditas (“little plump ones”) are so named because to make them one needs to fashion a plump dollop of dough.
Hispanic cuisine shares common roots and relies on corn as a multicultural bridge. So the next time you enjoy a gordita, you may actually be eating an arepa or a pupusa. That’s because in the Latin American kitchen, nationalities get mixed together.