Want to learn about Venezuelan cuisine? Take a virtual trip to this South American country with Vitelio Reyes, executive chef of Mayfair restaurant Amazónico. Try Vitelio’s Venezuelan arepas recipe.
Born in Caracas, Vitelio Reyes trained in Venezuela and has worked in North and South America, Europe and Asia. He has worked with Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz at Lima Floral in Covent Garden and is now executive chef of Amazónico in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square, a restaurant that takes its inspiration from the cultural diversity and gastronomic heritage of the Amazon region. On the new menu dishes include salteados (sautéed), a nod to Chifa, the combination of Chinese and Peruvian flavours such as ginger, coriander and lemongrass, tiradito, meat grilled on a parilla and empanadas.
As with many other diets in South America, our main ingredient for several national dishes is corn. With corn we make Venezuelan arepas (arepa comes from the aborigine language and translates as “bread made with hands”), which can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and filled with anything you can imagine. From seafood salad to carne mechada – which is the Latin American version of a beef ragu – arepas are the staple street food of my country.
2) Family style
I think growing up in a country like Venezuela with great weather and amazing landscapes, you are invited to be outside and to gather with your family and friends as soon the opportunity is given. As we say, “Festejamos hasta bautizo de muñecas” – which translates to, “We celebrate even the fake christening of dolls”, as an excuse to get together.
Once together, everything is centred around the food, drinks and good music. Everything that is cooked, from a sancocho to a whole hog, is automatically thought to be shared with the family. Family, for us, means something more, because we include neighbours, partners and even friends that aren’t blood related.
Our tables are always open to everyone who fancies great food and company. Here we share as a family, from the way we serve the food, to the way we discuss politics and try to solve global crises, all without losing our appetite or our will to have a good drink.
Chicharrónes (pork rinds) are well known everywhere in the world by different names but, regardless, everyone loves them. They are part of our daily diet, as are many other pork cuts. Chicharrónes are our version of national tapa, which you are given in a bar when you order a round of drinks. They are also a great companion on the road going to the beach – I remember in many instances going to the beach with my father, making a pit stop to order a chicharrón mixto per kilo, before arriving at the beach and enjoying them as part of our light lunch menu.
But chicharrónes are not the only outstanding street food that Venezuela has to offer. We have great empanadas made of beef, pork or fish, and even a vegetarian option if you decide to eat a domino kind, which is black beans and white cheese, and many other dishes which make our lives happier.
You can’t talk about Venezuelan food without placing an important emphasis on our sauces. I would say that we have a sauce for every essential meal we have throughout the day. Breakfast normally goes with a great arepa, and we have el mojo de picante for lunch, which normally involves meat. We always have guasacaca with chimichurri, because a good spicy sauce can never be missed. At dinner time, as fish normally goes on the table, it’s quite common to have a nice garlic mayo or mojo de ajo, which is a lemony garlic dressing with some fresh coriander.
5) Sancocho soup
Sometimes the simplest food can be the most incredible. This could be related to the company or the environment, I really can’t put my finger on it. But something I can say is that, after a week of work or university, Friday evenings always start with a nice grilled choripan (traditional spicy chorizo) with a freshly baked baguette and a classic condiment such as chimichurri or spicy sauce. This can be consumed either next to the local bar or in any of your friends’ houses. This little snack will start the weekend ahead, which is normally full of friends, activities and more.
Another very characteristic dish made with corn dough are hallacas (Venezuelan tamales), which is part of our traditional Christmas dinner. The name comes from the word “alla”, which means from the other side (making reference to ingredients that come from other countries to make part of the stew) and “aca” which means from this side (making reference to the corn dough and banana leaf wrap).
The most important part of Christmas day is not the food itself but the process of making it with your whole family, like a chain production. Of course we start drinking beers and rum as we chop the first bulb of garlic. After all the hallacas are wrapped and tied up with the proper knots, we start the cooking process which can be done on the stove but, in the more traditional houses, they are made over a wood fire, which gives the dish its distinct flavour.
Something we are well known for is the quality of rums we produce, which are, for sure, in the top five in the world due to the high quality and refinement. But the drink that really takes part in every celebration in our town festivals, parties or even on a daily basis, is a very cold Polarcita. To identify a cold Polarcita it must be “vestida de novia” (referring to the ice frost when pulling the bottle out from the fridge or freezer) Polarcita is our national beer. It is the first alcoholic brew that our parents share with us. It is a symbol of tradition and is a staple in our culture and in every house. It’s a recipe that has never changed and something that makes a Venezuelan proud whenever they are seen in the world.
Every single gathering in Venezuela, regardless of the celebration, is around the table. Events normally start at midday with some parrilla or asado (a massive barbecue for around 30 people) in the most traditional way and using the common Venezuelan meat cuts, such as punta trasera (rump cap), solomo de cuerito (sirloin), artisan pork sausages, morcilla (blood sausage) and, of course, the king and the queen of garnishes, boiled cassava root and guasacaca, which is a classic sauce made of herbs, onions, garlic and, on some occasions, avocados. From the moment the first charcoal or log is lit, it is mandatory for everyone to hold a drink in their hand – this can be alcoholic or not but the most classic way to enjoy a good Venezuelan parrilla, as temperatures are high and the sun is constantly shining, is with a refreshing cold beer. The parrilla normally ends around midnight, which gives you 10 to 12 hours of constant eating and drinking.
Definitely one of my favourites for breakfast or mid-afternoon snack when living in my country, was the golfeados. Golfeados are this sticky sweet and salty deliciousness made of bread dough, kneaded with aniseed and stuffed with papelón (raw cane sugar) and Venezuelan white cheese (which is only made in our country and it is normally salty and sour at the same time, due raw milk components). It is baked in traditional wood ovens and its smell raises your spirit, elevates your soul and wakes you up, as the cravings start.