When Columbus discovered Venezuela on his third voyage in 1498, the native cooking was extremely simple. When Pope John Paul II landed there almost 500 years later last Saturday for his visit, he encountered a cuisine that has developed its own character and special rewards.
Of course, he could have been stuck with continental food, as are many tourists too timid to venture far from their hotel restaurants. But, if he was lucky, he experienced the adventure of the native criolla dishes during his three-day visit.
Not widely known outside of a country that boasts the most Caribbean coastline, Venezuelan criolla food is spicy, though not fiery like Mexico's, and is flavored with garlic, onions, tomatoes and coriander as well as hot peppers. Criolla means creole, and these ingredients show its kinship to the creole cooking of Louisiana.
Spanish settlers after Columbus augmented the limited native Indian cuisine, and the African slaves, the early Arab and German immigrants and, as recently as the 1950s, the Italian and Portuguese immigrants, have influenced the cooking of Venezuela.
The cuisine that has emerged represents the conglomerate tastes of this ethnically varied population and lays claim to a number of unique dishes. Most ubiquitous are arepas, buns made of white cornmeal cooked crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and served with a tangy cheese spread called crema de nata, which resembles salted sour cream. Originally a native Indian bread, arepas are now Venezuela's quintessential fast food, with arepas shops featuring arepas sandwiches and instant arepas mix, a kitchen staple.
A typical criolla breakfast, best on Sundays at the old-fashioned Dama Antanona restaurant, consists of arepas with ham, eggs, black beans and fried yucca (one of the many root vegetables that figure prominently in Venezuelan cooking). Pure'e of apio, another local root, tastes like mashed chestnuts. Tannia, amaccacha, yams and sweet potatoes, all roots, are the main ingredients of sancocho, a popular soup so thick it is eaten with fork, knife and spoon.
Parilla criolla, the street vendor's standard, is made of barbecued, marinated Venezuelan beef, which is much like the highly marbled Argentine beef. Popular Argentine steaks are sometimes called baby bife. And pabellon is a whole meal of shredded beef with tomatoes, black beans, white rice and fried plantains.
With so much coastline, the prominence of seafood on the Venezuelan table is predictable. Natives recommend the local red snapper called pargo. There is ceviche de mero (sea bass), Venezuelan smoked salmon, turtle soup, cazuela de mariscos (creole-sauced squid, clams, lobsters, shrimp and mussels) and arroz con mariscos (Spanish rice with seafood). Most interesting is chipi chipi soup made of hatchet-shaped, fingernail-size tropical clams in the shell.
Venezuelans celebrate Christmas with their own version of tamales called hallacas, which they wrap in banana or plantain leaves and steam. But at El Porton, considered the best restaurant in Caracas by the Caraquenos (natives), and at the daily poolside buffet lunch at La Terraza in the Caracas Hilton hallacas can be sampled year-round.
Besides flan, tropical fruits are the preferred desserts of Venezuelan people, especially papaya (lechosa), sapodilla, passion fruit, soursop (guanabana) and mango. A trip to the Mercado Guaicaipuro in Caracas affords a glimpse at the variety. Cooked guava in syrup and egg yolk in sugar syrup, called huevos chimbos, are other favorites.
Local alcoholic drink specialties are based on king rum, produced from the sugar cane grown in many parts of the country. Merengada combines rum with milk and fruit pulp, batido substitutes water for the milk and ponche crema is an eggnog-rum concoction. The combination of alcohol, herbs and vegetables called Angostura bitters that is so essential to old-fashioneds comes from Angostura, now called Ciudad Bolivar after the native son who liberated Venezuela from the Spanish in 1821.
For a peek at an intact colonial Venezuelan red-tiled kitchen it is worth a stop at the Museo del Arte Colonial, a perfectly preserved 18th-century mansion that once belonged to the Marquis del Toro. A more unusual display is tucked away in the City Hall Raul Santana Museum of the Criolla Way of Life where intricately crafted scenes of miniature people, buildings and objects depict colonial criolla life. AREPAS, CARACAS HILTON (6 servings)
%2 cups precooked white cornmeal (available in Spanish groceries) 2 cups water 4 tablespoons oil plus extra for griddle 1 teaspoon salt Butter or sour cream, for serving
Combine cornmeal, water, oil and salt. Let stand 5 minutes. With wet hands shape dough into 3/4-inch-thick round discs like small hamburger patties. Add a little more water if dough crumbles. Grease and heat a griddle. Precook arepas on griddle 8-10 minutes. Transfer to an ungreased cookie sheet and bake in a 375-degree oven until crispy but not brown on the outside and still soft on the inside, about 20 minutes. Serve hot with butter or salted sour cream. FRIED YUCCA (8 servings)
2 pounds yucca (cassava root), found fresh and frozen in Spanish groceries
Oil for deep frying
Salt to taste
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
Peel yucca and cut into 2-inch chunks. Cook, covered, in salted water to cover until tender when pierced with a fork but not mushy, 30-45 minutes. Drain and dry well. Heat enough oil to cover yucca to 370 degrees. Add yucca and fry until it just begins to turn brown. Drain and sprinkle with salt. Saute' garlic in olive oil and pour over yucca. FRIED PLANTAINS (8 servings) 4 large, ripe plantains 2 tablespoons butter or oil
Use ripe plantains with black skins. Cut off both ends and peel like bananas. Slice in half lengthwise and in half again crosswise. Heat butter in a large skillet. Add plantains and saute' over medium heat until brown, turning once. Serve immediately or keep warm in a 200-degree oven. CHIPI CHIPI SOUP (6 servings) 4 dozen little neck clams or steamer clams 3/4 pound tannias (substitute potatoes), cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1 large onion, finely chopped 2 scallions, halved 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1 whole fresh hot pepper Salt and pepper to taste 1 tablespoon tomato paste 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
Scrub clams and place in a saucepan with 1-inch of water. Cover and cook over medium heat until shells open. Remove clams from shell. If using steamers, discard necks. Reserve clams. Strain clam broth through a cheesecloth. Add enough water to measure 6 cups. Return liquid to saucepan and add tannias or potatoes, onion, scallions, thyme, hot pepper, salt and pepper. Cook, covered, until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard scallions. Pure'e potatoes and broth in a blender or food processor. Return to saucepan and add tomato paste and butter. Heat gently. Stir in lemon or lime juice. Place clams in individual soup bowls and pour hot soup over them. Adapted from "The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking," by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz RED SNAPPER CREOLE (6 servings) 2 pounds red snapper fillets 2 strips bacon 2 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, minced 1 scallion, minced 1 stalk celery, chopped 2/3 cup sliced mushrooms 2 1/2 cups plum tomatoes 3 tablespoons tomato paste 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons brandy or sherry Salt and pepper to taste Oil for baking dish
Wipe fillets with a damp towel and cut into 6 serving pieces. Fry bacon until crisp, drain on paper towels and reserve. To bacon fat add butter, onion, scallion, celery and mushrooms to the skillet and saute' vegetables in bacon fat and butter until soft. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and crumbled bacon. Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Mix in brandy, salt and pepper and simmer 5 minutes more. Place fish in an oiled baking dish, pour a cup of creole sauce over and bake at 400 degrees until fish flakes when tested, about 10 minutes. Serve remaining sauce on the side.