“Epa chamo!,” “Qué onda men?,” “Que paso?,” “Que lo que?” All these phrases can be heard all around Florida International University campuses. Words are thrown together and projected amongst friends, colleagues, and passersby. They are ways of expression for the Spanish-speaking cultures at FIU, of which there are a lot of. They are slang words bundled together to announce one’s presence. They are spoken symbols that have been “perfected” in our native countries. I say “our” because I, myself am Venezuelan and I am known to throw around a couple of “epas!” These phrases are repeated over and over, so much that these short, yet catchy, idioms have become part of South American culture and have become totally acceptable in today’s dialog when saying hello to one another. They have been brought here to the melting pan that is South Florida. They have become part of the common language so much so that we have adopted English words to accompany sayings such as “Qué onda men?” “Men” is an adopted English term that is now used here and back in our mother countries! It has become a part of the worldly culture.
Now, I can ramble about language all day long, but my real job and the reason I am writing this article is to talk about another symbol; another way of unique expression that has been integrated into all countries and cultures across all ways of life parallel to language and life. This symbol is food. Food is the underlying adopted child of all “melting pot” cultures, that is why we call it a melting pot! Different cultures come together and say, “here, this is what I eat, it is what I have to offer, it is who I am.” Food is probably the best way to announce one’s arrival, one’s pea in the pod, one’s raised banner saying “I have come from afar and I have something to eat and share.” Being a chef in Downtown’s Boulud Sud restaurant, I know a little about food and the way it intrudes itself into people’s lives. I cook food every day for people that have the curiosity to explore a culture other than their own, another understanding, another way of looking at the world. Food can transport you. Food can give an experience that you can taste, smell, see and feel; it is edible culture, it is an edible presence. You can tell a lot about a group of people in the way they interact with the foods and ingredients around them.
The food that I have chosen for this article is the humble arepa. Yes, the arepa; a mixture of corn flour, water, salt, and heat, all rounded together into a circular pocket of steamy goodness. A food that all the people who say “epa chamo!,” “que pasa men!?” know all too well. Like slang, it was born out a necessity for substance, communication, and hunger. The arepa was born because Native Americans in South America had an abundance of corn and a necessity to eat and survive. One way of accomplishing this was to take old, dried out corn and make it into flour. With this flour, all one had to do was apply water, and heat, and within minutes you had an edible energy supply for workers, mothers, fathers, children, and elders. The 21st-century arepa is much more complex than its humble origins. Today we see arepas all over South Florida, the country, and even the world. It is basically the Mayor of Weston, Florida. Apparently an arepa stand in London, UK is the most popular in its food hall. Worldwide, people are starting to grasp the idea of the unassuming arepa; the way it eats, the way it is served, and the way it unites.
Here in South Florida, we have a culture that promotes extravagance, abundance, and just downright partying. This culture gets translated into the food which promotes our unique SoFlo spirit, and our spirit animal can easily be the arepa. At FIU, students eat it in between classes, amongst study sessions, and after a long night of partying in South Beach or Wynwood. Whether we notice it or not, these actions bring us together. We gather around the food that sober us up, literally, to the world around us. This makes us feel at comfort and at home since the arepa Latin culture is in the Miami DNA. The arepa offers people a way of feeling as if they were home even though the countries they see as home do not offer as many opportunities as the United States. In a not-so-happy, yet ironic way, we feel more at home here than in our actual countries. However, the keyword is feel. We feel at home because we have extensions of the home we once knew. We have the language, the slang, the people, the culture, and the food, but is that enough? The arepa seems to think so. The arepa is one of us, an idea that came to the states to morph itself into something this society accepts while still holding on to the parts that makes it unique.
Restaurants have added the arepa to its menu to appeal to the Latino market here and in other countries. These modern restaurants make the most of the variety an arepa can offer. In Miami, we have Doggy’s Arepa Bar, El Budare, Panna, El Arepazo, Pepito’s Plaza, Café Canela, etc. Hopefully, if this article does well, I can go to all these places and eat all the varieties of arepas they offer, for you, the reader, in your honor. Countless places have adopted the arepa cuisine and transformed them into their own. This is the unification of culture that you can taste. Arepas stuffed with churrasco, steak, and guac at Doggy’s is their idea of Miami fusion. In Avila Bistro in Aventura, their idea is an arepa stuffed with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil with a light balsamic drizzle. In Baltimore, Maryland the arepa has been elevated into a fine dining setting; The White Envelope offers arepas stuffed with herbed goat cheese, confit tomatoes, skate fish, curry, chicharron, and even morcilla which is a blood sausage.
Many elaborate choices for such a modest food; but this is not a bad thing or a misrepresentation of the arepa. It is simply culture evolving. An arepa restaurant in Amsterdam offers a unique and special stuffed arepa, and no, it is not infused with a certain botanical. It is filled with salted cod which a very common way of preparing a local fish in the Netherlands. This preparation is being put into the steaming pocket of a Venezuelan staple, “evolution fusion”, we can call it. Even the regular corn flour that makes up an arepa has been transformed into a sort of canvas of different colors and textures. Beet is used to color an arepa bright red in The White Envelope and many other arepa holes in the walls are starting to experiment with colorful arepas to attract more curious consumers; spinach for green, carrots for orange, curry powder for yellow, and even purple cabbage to give it the purple color. The color possibilities are imaginative, the flavors are boundless, the atmosphere around the greatly unassuming arepa is limitless. This is what the arepa does to people! It is a culture in constant movement, constant reinvention, constant growth. It is simply “Eatvolution.”
Author: Saul Hirshbein
University: Florida International University