Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Cornmeal Cravings and the Hunt for Harina Pan
Sometimes you can travel the world looking for something only to get back and find it was just round the corner all along. That's what happened to me when I went looking for Harina Pan, the basic ingredient for Venezuelan arepas.
You can say what you like about arepas; I've heard them described as "bland stodge in a bun", which is unfair, and "about the size of an ice-hockey puck and just as easy to digest", which is only partly true (the bit about the size).
But for millions of Venezuelans, the arepa is their daily bread, a versatile savoury snack that can be baked, fried or grilled, but is always guaranteed to fill you up.
For millions of families in Venezuela a steaming arepa smothered with butter and stuffed with cheese or ham makes a delicious start to the day.
For clubbers, fast food joints called areperas offer arepas stuffed with black pudding and spicy chorizo sausage as a pick-me-up after a night of sweaty salsa dancing and Cuba Libre cocktails.
The thing is, once you've got the taste for arepas nothing else will give you the same satisfaction. It's such a blank canvas. The taste of the cornmeal is so soft and subtle that it brings out the flavour of anything you stuff inside it; meat, black beans, scrambled eggs, avocado, anything.
After I moved from Caracas to the small town of Caversham in the UK, it wasn't long before Summer turned to Autumn, sunny days turned to drizzly grey, and I started to hanker for a few tropical treats to brighten the gloom.
I didn't know it then but I was suffering from cornmeal withdrawal. I needed maize, ground pre-cooked maize flour made into a dough and gently patted into a flying saucer shape, lightly toasted on both sides in a frying pan to give it a "cara" and then popped into the oven for twenty minutes or so.
I needed arepas.
My cornmeal cravings got so bad that I started to hunt down stores in the UK that sold Harina Pan.
After a quick search on the Internet and a few dead ends I found that the best place to get my maize-flour fix was in London, in the shops run by Colombians and Ecuadorians next to Elephant and Castle tube station. Cool.
The big shopping centre and the small shops in the railway arches behind it are a also a great place to pick up other stuff, like hot picante sauce and Latin music.
Looking further afield I also tracked down a small cafe/store in Brixton selling Colombian food that was another source for the coveted ground-maize mix.
But it was an effort schlepping all the way into London for a few ingredients and I started to go less and less, limiting my arepa blowouts to the odd times when I was lucky enough to be able to visit Venezuela.
But things are looking up. I've just found this new place in Reading, just across the river from Caversham.
Al-Medina in Oxford Road looks like any other Asian food store from the outside. It sells okra, sweet potatoes, every curry sauce under the sun and those massive bags of rice. But inside, wedged between the herbs and spices they have a shelf stacked full of Harina Pan, the white one, la buena.
At only £1.89 it's also the cheapest Harina Pan I've found in the UK.
So if you're getting cornmeal cravings and you're hunting for Harina Pan in the Caversham, Reading or Berkshire area, look no further than Al-Medina on Oxford Rd.
Now, if only I can find some cachapa mix, Toddy, a little tin of diablitos, some Venezuelan peppers, you know, aji dulce, the small sweet ones, Pampero Rum, Torontos, an ice-cold Solera Verde, the new CD by Los Amigos Invisibles... and... and... and...
By Russell Maddicks
Recipe: How to Make Arepas
Arepa and Co: The only Venezuelan food outlet in the UK
Arepa de Maiz Pelao: Making Arepas the Hard Way
Glossary: Eating at an Arepera
La Reina Pepiada: The Curvy Queen of Arepas
Recipe: Caraotas Negras - Venezuelan Black Beans
Recipe: Carne Mechada - Venezuelan Shredded Beef
Pabellon Criollo - Venezuela's national Dish
Al-Medina Stores is at 168 Oxford Rd, Reading, RG1 7PL.