Venezuelan Cuisine: Our series on Caribbean cooking continues with a first visit to Venezuela, in the South American mainland.
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Venezuela has a long Caribbean coastline and Venezuelan cuisine shares many aspects of its history, culture, and gastronomy with the Caribbean islands, so its cuisine can be said to form a part of the Caribbean culinary heritage.
Arepas, as we have mentioned in the past, are nothing like the Dominican coconut pudding of the same name. They share a basic ingredient, white corn flour, but Venezuelan arepas are small round savory patties served at breakfast and as an accompaniment to many main dishes.
The Cachapa is a savory pancake with a sweet touch. They are thinner and larger than their cousin the arepa, but the real difference is that cachapas are made with sweetcorn flour. It's usually eaten as a snack, accompanied by queso guyanes a white cheese from the disputed Guyana region of eastern Venezuela. Guyana (formerly British Guyana) is a separate independent country but you wouldn't know this if you looked at a Venezuelan map, which includes it as part of its own territory.
Caraotas is the Venezuelan name for black beans, known in the DR as habichuelas negras. Black beans are a favorite Venezuelan ingredient, most commonly prepared as a tasty stew, and also used to make black bean soup. Other types of beans like red beans are not as popular as they are in other parts of the Caribbean.
Carne mechada is perhaps the most typical Venezuelan meat dish, known in Cuba somewhat unappetizingly as ropa vieja (old clothes) and as carne ripiada in the Dominican Republic. Carne mechada can be best described as fried stringy beef, and is the main ingredient in pabellon, the Venezuelan equivalent of the Dominican flag, the basic daily meal. Pabellon usually consists of white rice, caraotas (fried or stewed), slices of fried ripe plantain and carne mechada. Seafood dishes are served on the coast and islands, and pollo asado (roast chicken) is universally loved.
Like chicken, plantains are pan-Caribbean favorites, and Venezuela is no exception. Unlike most other parts of the region, Venezuelans tend to prefer the sweeter ripe plantain to the green plantain. My favorite has to be the baked, caramelized plantain often served as a dessert, unlike the Dominican one, which is served with savory dishes.
A word of warning! Although we may be familiar with the cuisine of the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean, Venezuela has its own particular names for the same foods that are certain to confuse the visitor. Banana is cambur, cachito is croissant, jojoto is corn on the cob. Batido is a liquidized fruit drink made with milk, called merengada when made with ice cream. Torta means cake.
Venezuela is an enormous country which easily covers more space than all the Caribbean islands put together. Apart from its Caribbean coastline (and some small offshore islands like Los Roques and the touristy Isla Margarita) Venezuela includes a vast Amazonian region, the pampas-like Llanos, and the mountainous Andean region, all of which bring other culinary traditions to the national kitchen. The Venezuelan passion for steak is only rivaled by the Argentinians, if the pride in insisting theirs is the best in the world is anything to go by. The Andeans bring drinks like chicha, which is made with rice and milk, to the table, as well as potato dishes. The rich melting pot of immigrants adds some spice in the form of Middle Eastern delicacies such as kibbeh and falafel. European flavor comes chiefly from Spain and Italy.
Otherwise, the repertoire of typical Venezuelan dishes reads very much like Dominican standards. Majarete features in the desserts, auyama (pumpkin or squash) is a popular ingredient in sweet and savory dishes. We also find casabe and escabeche, chivo, mondongo and sancocho, showing the prominence of Caribbean influence on the national gastronomy.