As any Londoner knows, the capital is home to a hugely diverse, multicultural population, drawn from more than 270 nationalities. The city’s restaurant scene reflects that, offering many and various cuisines that offer solace through food to many homesick expats.
For Gus and Kathe Salguero, the husband-and-wife team behind Arepa & Co, two Venezuelan restaurants in east London, this nostalgia is even more poignant. Venezuela’s chronic, catastrophic financial problems have left many Venezuelans in poverty, unable even to afford basic foods, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries.
As Gus explains: “For us, maize is our main ingredient. It’s our heritage, but it’s now so scarce that many kids wouldn’t even recognise it.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, Venezuela had the best gastronomy in South America, with top-notch restaurants, especially in Caracas. Authentic Spanish food, the best French cuisine, often spiced up a bit. Nowadays, it’s a real shame. Even the restaurants that survive suffer from a lack of ingredients and struggle to stay open all day.”
In their Haggerston and Bethnal Green kitchens, happily, Gus and Kathe can keep the Venezuelan culinary flame burning, and the eponymous arepa is at the heart of their menus. An unleavened bread made with maize flour, it can be split after cooking like pitta bread, then stuffed with all manner of fillings.
The Salgueros use the Pan brand ofpre-cooked white maize flour. Other maize flours – polenta or masa harina, for instance – won’t work in the same way. The dough may seem too wet to start with, but leave it for a few minutes and it will stiffen sufficiently to be rolled into balls, flattened and grilled, “And,” says Gus, “you can add quinoa flakes, oats, flax seeds or grated vegetables into the dough. Just add them to the water before you put in the maize. Arepas are very adaptable.”
Favourite fillings include perico, Venezuelan-style scrambled eggs, flavoured with sofrito: shallots, red peppers, tomatoes and spring onions sautéed in olive oil; according to Kathe, “the heart of many traditional Venezuelan recipes, the soul of our kitchen”. And carne mechada – braised and shredded beef, popular in many Latin American countries, made with brisket and vegetables and conveniently prepared in a pressure cooker, although of course you could cook it conventionally, it’ll just take more time.
As will the black turtle beans that accompany it, flavoured with red pepper, shallots and garlic. The quantities given below will make far more beef and bean than you will need for eight arepas, but they will keep for a week in the fridge.
As a finishing touch to shredded beef and black bean arepas, Kathe and Gus like to use crumbly cheese. Queso de mano, a soft fresh cheese, is used in Venezuela, but feta, Wensleydale, Caerphilly or Cheshire work well, too. While Gus and Kathe’s crisp-edged, fluffy-centred arepas are a welcome taste of home for many London-based Venezuelans, they have a greater ambition for arepas.
“We want to make them the new bread in London,” says Kathe. She might just succeed. Easy to make, delicious, adaptable, gluten-free and virtually free of fat, arepas have much to commend them.
Arepas with shredded beef and black beans
For the black beans:
500g black turtle beans
10g black pepper
30g raw cane sugar
25g garlic, minced
200g red pepper, in large dice
250g shallots, in large dice
4 tbsp vegetable oil
For the shredded beef:
60ml vegetable oil
250g shallots, diced
250g red peppers, diced
75g leek, chopped
75g spring onions, chopped
25g garlic, minced
1.5kg beef brisket, chopped into 5 cm cubes
5g black pepper
To make 8 arepas:
345g precooked white maize flour
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vegetable oil
1. Rinse the black beans thoroughly in cold water, then put in a pressure cooker with the salt and 1 litre of water and cook on high heat for 30 minutes or until the pressure releases for the first time. Take off the heat and wait until the pot allows you to open it.
2. Once the pot is open, add 250ml of water and stir well. Put the oil in a separate large pan and cook the garlic and shallots over a medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the red pepper and stir-fry for another 2 minutes, then add the sugar and pepper and keep stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Cook for another 2 minutes or until the mixture starts to thicken, then add the vegetables to the beans and stir. Simmer for 10 minutes, then allow to cool.
3. To cook the beef, heat the oil in a pressure cooker, then add the vegetables and fry until tender over a high heat. Add the beef, then the salt and pepper, and cover with the lid, sealing tightly. Cook on high heat for 30 minutes, or until the cooker releases pressure for the first time, then cook for another 45 minutes on medium/low heat. Once the pressure can be released, take off the lid, break up the beef with a spoon and mix with the vegetables.
4. To make the arepas, put the water, salt and oil into a large bowl, then gradually add the flour, making sure there are no lumps and mix it with your hands until you have a smooth dough. Rest it for a few minutes to hydrate the flour, then, with wet hands, divide into balls of around 120g each. Flatten each ball into a disc about 1cm thick and then cook over medium heat on a lightly-oiled griddle or frying pan until browned on both sides.
5. To assemble, wait until the arepas are cool enough to handle then split them with a thin serrated knife and fill with generous spoonfuls of the shredded beef and the black beans, topping with crumbled cheese if desired.