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I remember sitting out on my terrace as a 7 year old child, eating a bowl of plain yogurt, cucumber, dill, garlic and salt. Looking out at the Hudson River and Tappan Zee bridge, I’d crunch the chunky cucumbers in between my little, crooked teeth and smack my mouth together from the tart yogurt.
I liked it and I didn’t. It was weird and yet totally pleasurable to eat this thing that was neither liquid nor solid.
It was comfort food for a hairy little mediterranean girl. It was strange like the buttered cheap caviar sandwiches or stuffed grape leaves I’d bring to school. The faces I’d get when my friends came over and my mom made this dish called spaghetti and yogurt were funny to think back on. “Eeewwww…” my friends would say.
While I was easily embarrassed about things like boys or being on stage, somehow I always seemed to march to the beat of my own drum when it came to clothing and food. Being a public elementary school kid in NY before sushi became the popular cuisine it is today, I was in a grade with kids from Taiwan, India, Puerto Rico, Hungary, Roumania, the USSR (yes), and Ireland.
If you ask me to remember multiplication tables, you’ll never get me beyond 12 without grabbing a calculator or pencil. But I can tell you with clarity of the bright orange, syrupy julabi at Shamila’s birthday party or of biting into the little yellow and pink pickles in the futomaki at international food day.
When I think back on those days, the blessings of growing up with people from every color, background, and walk of life is not lost on me.
If there’s anywhere in the world to learn that people can in fact live, work, interact, and be together, it’s here in New York City.
When I make this simple little tzatziki, I think ofit’s humility, of my mom stirring together the ingredients with a fork in our riverdale kitchen and of what it means to share authentically your own family culture so that others can learn, connect appreciate and celebrate our diversity.
Andrea Lubrano answers the door to her Bushwick apt. Her brown hair is wound into two Laura Ingalls braids and she’s bedecked in her own hang out style lounge gear. Clogs, jeans, hoop earrings, and a dark blue denim apron.
Andrea leads me through the bright sunny space she shares with husband Eli Goldstein (AKA Elyte of DJ duo Soul Clap) to a modern kitchen in which she’s meticulously measured out a variety of ingredients into small glass bowls.
Together, we’re making arepas, a dish she’s watched her grandmother make again and again as a child.
Arepas, native to Colombia and Venezuela are made by combining precooked corn flour or masa, with warm water. “You knead the dough and add water until it’s soft and silky, but you have to add the water slowly to make sure you don’t get any lumps,” Lubrano expertly demonstrates.
In Colombia, the dough is mixed with cheese, salt, a little sugar, then griddled and eaten as is, often as part of breakfast.
In her native Venezuela, the plain masa dough is formed into small patties, griddled until golden, and baked until puffed. Piping hot, the arepa is sliced open and stuffed with fillings that run the gamut. From black beans, cheese, and fish, to beef or braised pork, arepas are also given special names depending on their stuffing.
Gluten free and bread-like, the arepa resembles the offspring of a pita and English muffin, but it’s entirely its own thing.
The popularity of the arepa rose in the 1950’s after the development of precooked corn flour. It turned this once laborious dish made once or twice a year on special occasions, into the country’s most popular and accessible late night snack.
“In the Andes, they’re big, round, flat and eaten like a bread with soup. Whereas on the coast and in the city, they’re smaller and fatter,” Lubrano explains.
Perhaps the most popular and classic Venezuelan arepa, La Reina Pepiada or “The Good Looking Queen,” was named after Venezuelan beauty queen Susana Duijm, who won The Miss World pageant in 1955.
The story goes that Duijm’s father visited an arepera in Caracas and was so charmed by the owner’s niece who was dressed up like a little princess in honor of his own Susana, that he promised to bring his daughter back to visit. When he did, the shop owner’s mother prepared a special arepa in her honor. It was stuffed with chicken salad, green peas, onion and avocado and it was coined la Reina Pepiada, pepiada(o) being the adjective to describe well dressed and attractive people in those days.
This is the arepa Lubrano shares with me for lunch today.
She mixes the arepa dough expertly, adding the water bit by bit until she gets the optimal, malleable consistency.
Just as her grandmother taught her, Andrea forms the dough into discs and griddles them until crusty and golden, then pops them into the oven.
The kitchen smells of fire-roasted corn and Stevie Knicks is playing on spotify.
She pulls a tray of arepas out of the oven and splits two open, scooping the excess dough from the center and assembling the arepas. “People who diet in Venezuela remove the middle and discard it.” I think of all those leggy Venezuelan hotties missing out on the fun.
To the little bits, she adds a pat of butter and some salt. “This was always my favorite part of eating arepas.”
We eat both. There isn’t nearly enough of the fluffy warm dough and salty butter. It has the same intoxicating effect as a bowl of warm, cheesy grits or polenta.
Next the crisp, still slightly warm arepa shell gives way first to the creamy avocado, then the savory chicken salad. With punchy little bits of onion and sweet green peas, it is a humble and perfect lunch, fit for a queen.
You can stand working next to people for ages without knowing some pretty amazing things about their lives.
This happened to me with my friend and coworker Rhina. She came over a few weeks back with her daughter Mildred to teach me how to make pupusas, a traditional food from El Salvador.
A corn dough made from maseca and stuffed with anything from beef, to pork, vegetables, beans or cheese, Pupusas are a dish Rhina has been making for years. Before Mildred arrived, I asked Rhina how long she’s been making pupusas. Assuming she’d say she made them at family gatherings and holidays, I found out that for 15 years, every Saturday and Sunday, Rhina made and sold about 1500 pupusas in the park in Flushing, Queens. That on top of her work all week long in the city.
She started small but as word spread, people in the El Salvadoran community came to the park every weekend to watch soccer and queue up to buy her handcrafted griddled snacks.
Thousands upon thousands of pupusas later, she ends up in my kitchen. When you get to learn from the best, there is something unique in the way hands deftly create a recipe.
As Rhina began to explain the process, how the soft the dough ought to be, how to carefully wrap the masa around the filling and gently form it back into a patty, that little firecracker in her came out! Passing them back and forth between her hands, the sound of the dough slapping pat-pat-pat, I knew before I even bit through the golden crust into the salty, melted cheese that Rhina was making magic.