I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. My father was from Margarita Island, located in the northeast, and my mother is from the country’s second-largest city, Maracaibo, at the opposite extreme in western Venezuela.
I was always interested in food and I remember the first day I cooked something: I was 7 years old and in third grade. We had an event for Food and Nutrition Day, which is November 18 in Venezuela. We were supposed to cook vegetables and fruits with our teachers and school personnel, and I was fascinated that I cooked something and was able to interact with food in a way other than simply eating it.
From that moment, I became very close to both my grandmothers’ kitchens, offering help particularly for Sunday family meals and, in December, making the traditional and laborious Christmas dish hallacas.
I learned to cook from my grandmothers; my mom and dad are both successful journalists who liked to eat (but not prepare) food. When I was sent to the United States in the 1980s to improve my English, I brought those interactions with my grandmas and put them to action. I longed for ancestral flavors of my heritage.
Back in Venezuela, summers were spent by the beach on Margarita Island near my paternal grandparents’ house. I remember shopping for food with my grandmother, who carefully chose ingredients and would drive miles away to find the best fresh fish, fruits and vegetables on the island.
In those days, Venezuela was a very different country from what we hear about today. It was prosperous, safe and engaged in modernity with a high taste for gastronomic innovation — which fortunately continues to stand today, even in the middle of the most severe crisis experienced by the country since its independence days.
As I write these lines, Venezuela is immersed in political, social and economic chaos. Food security has impaired the majority of households. People are facing food shortages, lack of access to food due to its elevated cost, and scarcity of gas, electricity or safe water. Venezuelans also face the challenge of cooking with foods that are available or that they can still afford.
Traditional Cuisine and Eating Habits
As with many Latin American cultures, Venezuelan cuisine is linked to corn and beans, which are used in dishes such as arepas (a form of cornbread filled with avocado and chicken or shredded beef; popular for breakfast), cachapas (a type of corn pancakes) and our iconic “flag” dish pabellón criollo, served with white rice, black beans, shredded beef and fried plantains.
The cuisine of the Eastern Region of Venezuela is largely influenced by Spain, France (from Corsica), India (many from Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana) and the Dutch Caribbean. It is full of mixed aromas and spices yet is simple and fresh. Growing up in the Eastern Region, fresh fish was a must — accompanied by ripe tomatoes and avocados and sprinkled with juicy limes full of flavor. You’ll also find fresh blood sausage (the creole version of the French boudin noir), creole chorizos and sweet native chilis that are unique in texture, color and flavors.
At the northwestern part of the country by Zulia State bordering with Colombia, a common food is deep-fried green plantains covered with toppings such as cabbage, shredded carrots, shredded beef or chicken, and a dressing made of a combination of mayonnaise, tomato, garlic and parsley salsa verde (green sauce). In the Andean region, soups are rich and delicious — great for the colder weather in this area. In southern Venezuela, there are big rivers full of fish. Fish rich in fat such as pavón, lau lau and sapoara are used in stews and soups that are uniquely different from soups found in the Eastern Region, including Sancocho de Pescado (typical creole soup) and Corbullón de Mero (fish soup and grouper or other fish court-bouillon, per the French influence).
Ingredients for traditional Venezuelan cooking include precooked corn flour (masarepa, also may be called masa al instante or harina precocida) and ground corn, small sweet chili peppers, limes and the creole version of bouquet garni (fresh cilantro, spearmint, parsley and green onions — called compuesto by my grandmothers and an essential for soups and stews). Venezuelan cocoa, which is among the best in the world, is the base for outstanding desserts, along with coconuts and the many fruits available in the tropical Caribbean climate.
While Christmas scents often include cinnamon or pine in other regions of the world, for Venezuelans, the aroma of holidays is plantain leaves. A distinctive part of Venezuelan Christmas is an elaborate tamal called the hallaca: ground-corn dough filled with meat or poultry and other foods such as raisins and olives, then wrapped in smoked plantain leaves and boiled.
Challenges and Future Perspectives
Traditional Venezuelan dishes lack dark leafy greens and other vegetables, creating an extraordinary opportunity to promote the use of these cheaper sources of micronutrients — especially as food access challenges continue. Feeding people is essential, and Venezuelans are adapting recipes for available foods while trying to satisfy local tastes and preserve ancestral heritage. For example, arepas traditionally made with corn flour (which is increasingly scarce) are becoming multicolored as they are made from pumpkins, carrots, spinach or yucca.
The flavors of our traditional cuisine began with the first people who arrived at the Venezuelan territory. Some tastes may have changed over the years, but those tied to our identity as a culture and as a nation so far have sustained. What becomes of traditional Venezuelan dishes in years to come remains to be seen.
Popic M. Comer en Venezuela Del Cazavi a la Espuma de Yuca. 1rst Ed. Miro Popic Editor; 2013:15.