When friends back home ask me how the food is in Colombia there has never been hesitation in replying — fabulous. Arepas de choclo con queso are a case in point.
Arepas can be a cross between sweet corncakes or savory southern biscuits. The type of arepa, white or corn flour, and how it is served differs in every part of Colombia. On the coast a traditional dish is deep fried arepa with egg in the middle. In Antioquia small white arepas are served as a side with meals of soup or meat (although there seems to be general consensus amongst the expats I have met that at their best these arepas taste like warmed cardboard, and at their worst like stale cardboard).
The arepa de choclo is a mixture of corn flour, milk and sugar. When grilled the result is an irresistible sweet griddle corncake. Arepas de choclo are traditionally served with cheese, which can be mixed into the dough, served in slices on top, or – my favorite way – wedged inside, like an arepa sandwich.
The best arepas de choclo con queso that I have tasted so far have been enjoyed in the moutains of Santa Elena on the outskirts of Medellin, at Restaurante Los Pinos. The restaurant has a ceiling but no walls so that you are exposed to the cool mountain air and have a view of the forest in all directions. The seats and tables are polished tree trunks and the guests sit facing an open grill where the arepas and other traditional foods are cooked over a firepit.
Unlike in many restaurants that serve arepas, the dough at Los Pinos is made from scratch. While waiting to be served you can watch Olga Lucia Patiño, the arepa chef, roll each dough ball individually before setting it on the grill’s open flame to cook. In The several times I have eaten there the arepas were hot off the grill, crispy and just turned golden. They dripped with delicious butter on the outside and on the inside were filled with partially melted slices of local farmers’ cheese. My first visit, I took the lead of other customers and ordered a steaming bowl of hot chocolate to accompany my meal. That combination was all it took for me to become a loyal follower of the arepa.
I wanted to speak with Patiño to find out more about the chef behind my unexpected new favorite treat. She shared with me that she had been cooking arepas since she was a little girl. Her mother taught her to cook. “I was 7 when I learned and I helped her in the kitchen,” said Patiño. “Every time after that when she was not there, I always did them on my own in the house.”
Patiño explained that arepas are eaten with breakfast, lunch and dinner with cheese and with butter. “In Antioquia they eat a lot of arepas,” she said with a laugh.
It is also traditional to serve arepas with hot chocolate or with milk.
According to Patiño family recipe you first cook the corn flour then grind it in a machine. You form the dough into circles with the palms of your hands and cook them for around 10 minutes on the grill. She serves them with local cheese and butter.
So what is Olga’s family secret for the best arepas? “You have to put a lot of love and also a lot of care not to burn them. But more than anything love. When you put love into food, it is the most delicious.”
Want to try cooking arepas de choclo con queso yourself? Here’s how:
Ingredients (6 Arepas)
- Two cups pre-cooked corn meal
- Two cups hot water
- One quarter teaspoon of salt
- Two tablespoon soft butter, divided
- 12 slices mozzarella cheese
- Mix the flour, water, salt and butter in a medium-sized bowl. Knead the lot for about three minutes moistening your hands with water as you work.
- Form six small dough balls. Use parchment paper to flatten each ball between to about 1/3 inch thick and about five inch in diameter.
- Add the butter to a non-stick pan over medium heat. Place the arepas in the pan, and cook about two minutes on each side, until they are look golden brown.
- Cut the arepas and stuff them with two slices of mozzarella cheese.
- Fry the stuffed arepas on the skillet over medium high heat for two minutes on each side until the cheese is melted.