Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Venezuelan Roadside Food or How to Make a Pancake with a Machete

Using a machete to flip cachapas at a roadside stand in Maturin, Venezuela (photo by Luis Bastardo)

I am a huge fan of street food. Some of the best meals I've ever eaten have been consumed standing on a steamy, noisy street somewhere in India, Thailand, Cambodia or Bali, dodging motorbikes and cows, with messy, delicious juices dripping from my food onto my clothes. Now that's living. There's something authentic and satisfying about eating freshly made regional specialties in the open air, while everyday frenetic life goes on around you. In Venezuela's capital city, Caracas, there is the usual array of city-style food kiosks, offering canned soda, candy and snacks, but you can also find "batidos", a type of colorful, delicious smoothie made with water and a mixture of fresh tropical fruit (banana, mango, papaya, nispero, sugar cane, etc) blended to order. Made with whole milk and/or condensed milk, they are known as "merengadas". The flavors are creative to say the least and include mixtures of several tropical fruits and vegetables meant to add a super vitamin boost to your diet or rather unusual recipes to increase male stamina or with general aphrodisiac qualities, including ingredients such as quail eggs or bull's eyeballs (seriously). My thought was that if you were daring enough to drink bull's eyeballs, you probably had no problem with your male virility in the first place. As exciting (pardon the pun) as all that sounds, the real food adventure begins outside of Caracas.

A highway-side grill serving wood-roasted meats in Merida, Venezuela (photo by Luis Bastardo)

One of my favorite foods in Venezuela is the cachapa, an oversize yellow cornmeal pancake filled with queso blanco (a semi-soft fresh white cheese) or queso guayanesa (a mozzarella-type cheese). It is a thick, sweet, coarse pancake with a similar taste to the American south's cornbread, but with a softer texture. The mild, soft cheeses add a good textural and taste balance. Most Venezuelans order the family size cachapa and slice it into sections for sharing. Another delicious option made from white cornmeal is the ubiquitous arepa, a smaller, denser type of bread, similar to an english muffin, but much heavier. They can be fried or baked in an arepa pan and are served for every meal and filled with almost anything: scrambled eggs, cheese, Underwood Deviled Ham (a hugely popular food item in Venezuela and know locally as "diablitos" or "little devils"), beef, chicken, ham, etc. Closely related to the arepa is the empanada, a type of turnover filled with meat, chicken, fish such as cazón (school shark), guiso (a type of meat or chicken stew), white cheese or vegetables. While Argentine empanadas are usually make from wheat flour and baked with crimped edges in a form similar to the English cornish pasty, Venezuelan empanadas are normally made from cornmeal, fried, and have a smoother, more uniform shape.

   Venezuelan-style fried empanadas (photo by Simone Cannon)

Throughout the country, grilled meats and fish are widely available and the tempting smells wafting from the smoky grills are hard to pass up. Chorizos (sausages), costillas (ribs), carne asada (marinated beef), pollo (chicken) and cerdo (pork) are on offer. The meats can be ordered alone and served with an avocado-based condiment called "guasacaca" or as part of a platter called "pabellón criollo", which is usually marinated shredded beef, "caraotas" (black beans), rice and sauteed plantains or fried yucca (manioc). Nearer to the Caribbean coast and on Isla Margarita,  there are many fishing docks where you can buy fresh fish directly from the local fisherman who often set up a fish market just a few yards from their boats. A vendor will let you select the fish, tell him how you want it prepared and he will fillet it and cook it for you on the spot. It doesn't get much fresher than that.  

Preparing "levantón andinos", smoothies meant to increase mail virility, which include fish roe, quail eggs and bull's eyeballs, Merida, Venezuela  (photo by Luis Bastardo)

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