Culinary secrets of Colombian cycling, part 3: Arepas

In the department of Antioquia (where Medellin is located), important figures, visiting dignitaries and winners of events like the Vuelta a Colombia are commonly awarded a garland made of arepas. Pictured here is Sergio Henao wearing one such garland.

Last year while in Medellin, I found myself with an hour to kill, having arrived far too early to an appointment. I decided to walk down Carrera Carabobo, a pedestrian street that cuts through much of Medellin's downtown. There I found one of the many cafés where Colombia's working class commonly stop by for a quick bite to eat on their way to work. One part restaurant, one part pub, these cafés (commonly referred to as "tiendas" in Colombia) are an ideal place to eat, and engage in conversation with whoever is there. Since I was hungry, I decided to get an arepa, a culinary staple in Colombia. Medellin and the rural areas that surround it have long had a love affair with the arepa, which has led to endless variations on this very simple dish. Due to my sizable appetite, I spent over an hour at the tienda discussing local politics with the owner as I ate seven arepas, each one completely different from the last one. I was full, I was happy...and because I ate and talked so much, I was now late for my meeting. The one I had arrived early to before setting foot in that café.

Arepas and sweet plantains on the side of the road, two Colombian staples. These larger, thinner arepas are usually garnished with butter and salt.

Why arepas?
In the past, I've spoken about foods like panela, bandeja paisa, and bocadillo within the context of cycling. In the case of panela and bocadillo, these foods are intrinsically linked to the sport in Colombia because of their portability, availability and how inexpensive they are. In the case of a food like arepas (plural for arepa), the link is less obvious. Because arepas are enjoyed fresh, and while they are still warm, they are not the type of food that cyclists usually take in their jersey pockets. But the link is still there. Arepas are the preferred breakfast food in Antioquia, a hotbed of cycling activity in Colombia, and are also a sought after snack in roadside stands that dot the entire countryside. While American cyclists often stop to eat an energy bar along with a Coke or Gatorade from a convenience store, in Colombia cyclists will often stop for an arepa. Recreational cyclists, those in mountain doesn't matter. Even young riders with hopes of becoming professionals know the value of a good arepa. Outside of Medellin last year, en route to Rionegro, I saw the entire junior Orgullo Paisa team eating arepas on the side of the road. They were sporting mismatched TT helmets along with their skinsuits, as they devoured cheese-stuffed arepas along with the team's directors. Similarly, the most common meal sold at races like the Clasico El Colombiano are arepas.

What are arepas?
Simply put,
arepas are corn cakes. They are much thicker than Mexican tortillas, and closer to Salvadorian and Nicaraguan pupusas. They are made out of pre-cooked cornmeal which can be boiled, baked or fried. Most commonly, however, they are grilled. They can be served plain, but are most often served with butter, salt and white cheese over them. They can also be garnished, stuffed or topped off with eggs, fish, vegetables or anything else you can imagine. Even more variations exist because of the many kinds of corn that can be used to make the flour.

Five-time winner of the Vuelta a Colombia Ramon Hoyos sporting an arepa garland

Arepas on the go
Not only are arepas enjoyed by cyclists before rides and during rides, they are also sold by cyclists. Throughout cities like Bogota and Medellin you will often see small armies of grill-equipped bikes riding out early in the morning to sell this portable treat to people in every neighborhood. The bikes are often painted flat black, and you will see their owners going up the steepest climbs in order to get to their preferred spots to sell arepas. In Medellin last year, I saw one such vendor outclimb multiple riders in full kit up the legendary Alto de Palmas climb (while hauling fifty pounds of arepa flour, water, and coal).

Sadly, I was unable to find a good video in English that showed how to make a proper arepa. As such, I'm including one in Spanish, which shows the simple steps to make a cheese-filled arepa. The flour being used is cooked cornmeal. Almost everyone around the world uses P.A.N. brand arepa flour. You can buy it online here. You mix equal parts flour and water, a pinch of salt, and you have what you need to get started.

One last thing, did anyone notice this while watching Paris-Tours? The guy crashes, tries to finish the race, but the police won't let him. Apparently they didn't know that the rider's team is clean, clever and competitive.