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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Cartagena’s Arepa Lady

Written by Nikki Vargas
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Each day Elaine Gomez Lozano sets up her cart on the corner of Carrera 11 and Calle 38 in Cartagena’s Old City and begins making handmade arepas. Her cart is positioned in front of the crumbling wall surrounding the historical district so that she can cater to the passing locals and tourists looking for a quick and savory bite. For the past 40 years, Elaine (whom I’ve come to refer to as The Arepa Lady) has stood on this very corner flattening and shaping the maize, tossing the arepas in a vat of hot oil and serving them alongside colorful salsas in vibrant greens and reds. 

In Colombia, the arepa is a staple of the cuisine of the indigenous people and colonial farmers, making this humble treat an important part of the country’s culinary tradition. Usually eaten for breakfast or lunch, Arepas con huevos are traditional in Colombia and can be likened to a crispy, round hot pocket with a sweet, corn exterior and cooked egg–often mixed with meat–on the inside. 


Arepas are sold on almost every corner of Cartagena–some arepas are left sitting out, growing progressively drier under the hot sun while other arepas, like Elaine’s, are made fresh. The arepa—unique to Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine–is a flat bread made of cornmeal with the word “arepa” translating as maize or corn and said to have originated from the Caracas natives,


When I travel I almost always go to the streets for the best representation of a country’s local fare and to find dishes unique to the region and best representative of the culture. While on assignment to explore the Cartagena food scene for an article, I came upon Elaine and her unassuming arepa stand. 


Like an expert to whom a process has become second nature, I watched as Elaine kneaded out the cornmeal, slapped the yellow dough between her bronzed hands, folded the dough and deftly cracked an egg into the fold before tossing it into the bubbling oil. Fishing out the arepas at the precise moment when ready, Elaine wrapped the warm treat in a white napkin and handed it to me. The first bite of the arepa was fragrant and savory, with the crisp maize mingling with the taste of egg and beef. The accompanying homemade condiments ranged from fresh guacamole to a fiery red salsa to a cooling, white sauce reminiscent of tzatziki--each one changing the taste of the arepa and creating a new symphony of flavors. For less than the cost of a New York subway ride, anyone passing by could enjoy a treat as true to Colombia as the local making them.


My attempts to excitedly tell Elaine that I would be writing about her arepas for “an American food publication” were lost in translation, so I took her e-mail, wrote down the street location and vowed to recommend her food to all who visit. 


Almost a year later, I found myself back in Cartagena and hungrily heading towards my favorite arepa lady. I eagerly walked towards Carrera 11 and Calle 38 only to recognize everything–-the stand, the street, the food–-but not Elaine. Perhaps it was her daughter that was now whipping up the arepas or maybe Elaine had simply taken the day off, but that crispy arepa was without a doubt the same it had been 365 days earlier—perfection.


After my Cartagena in 10 Plates article was published, I tried contacting Elaine to share the news of her much-deserved moment of fame. In vain, I tried to decipher the scrap of paper where she had hastily scribbled down an e-mail address but never received a response to my message. Elaine might still be oblivious to the waves of fans she has created among my family, friends and readers so, if nothing else, consider this my homage to The Arepa Lady, her wonderful food and 40 years of making people smile–whether she knows it or not.


©Nikki Vargas