Monday, August 18, 2008


It began with a bag of P.A.N.

I found myself in Casa Iberica. One of those iconic, Melbourne stores that’s been serving the community for decades. In this case it is all things Spanish and Latin American. Just walking across the threshold is a cause for celebration. Although their opening hours appear respectable, it always seems to be shut when I stroll past it.

Each shelf is crammed with exotic flours, dried herbs, chillies in every form, tins of heart of palms and hominy. Overhead giant sized paella pans are stung, large chunks of cured meats, more chillies on a thread, kitsch decorations. The language spoken is Spanish, tired women pile kilo’s of yerba mate into their baskets, well padded men can be found loitering at the counter waiting for their custard tarts. It’s that kind of place.

So the first packet I see before is masa harina. The bright yellow package immediately recognisable from this great post on making arepas, over at Gluten Free Girl. Months ago it was. I coveted them, then filed the magic ingredient away in the too hard basket. Til this moment when it all came together.

Without hesitation in went the packet of P.A.N. I saved my indecision for standing in front of the dried Mexican chillies (it would take a second trip to the store days later before I could really commit to one). My hand quivered over the solid blocks of 100% cocoa for real hot chocolate. I coveted the tortilla press. But on this visit it was just me and the P.A.N. that made it home together.

Arepas are a South American staple, especially in Venezuela and Columbia. The flour is made from pre-cooked corn, making it both smooth and gritty in the same instance. The basic recipe seems to revolve around the masa harina, warm water and a touch each of salt and oil. Some people pour the flour into the water, others do the opposite. There is little mixing. With no gluten there is no need to work the mixture or even let it rest. Cooking falls into a choice of frying, baking or a combination of both. You can stuff them with cheese before cooking, or make them plain. Once cooked you can use them to scoop beans or fill them like a roll. So simple you can make them every day.

Following the method demonstrated by Shauna’s friend Karen I started with a bowl with 200 mls of warm water. Tossing in a pinch of salt and a scant tsp of vegetables oil, a just started pouring in the flour with one hand, the other in the water doing the mixing. Daring, I know, using no measurements but very swiftly the dough, came together. Literally in seconds the masa harina thickened in my hand. It took about a minute or so from start to finish to get a while ball of damp dough that stuck together without leaving bits behind on my fingers.

Shaping the little darlings is the more challenging part and I am still on my L Plates but it is a good excuse to keep practicing. About the size of a crumpet is about right.

Continuing with Karen’s method, I used my well seasoned cast iron pan, wiped a tiny amount of oil over it with a paper towel and put in on a medium flame. After cooking each disc for a few minutes on each side to make a decent crust, they went on a baking tray in to the oven for 20 minutes at 175 c. Tap them to see if they are cooked, they should have that telltale hollow sound like bread.

ok I need a little more shaping practice but you get the idea

We ate our arepas two ways. A batch at night was used to scoop up some great chilli beans, flavoured with the slow smoky heat of chipotles. Splitting the hot arepas in half it seemed slightly damp in the middle but didn’t taste at all doughy. A lick of butter, a trial run with some Greek Fasting (milk free) fetta and a dollop of the bean and vegetable mixture on top. We were in heaven.

I’d reserved some of the dough to play with the next day. This time I baked some eggs with mushrooms, garlic, spring onion, ‘fetta’ and zataar with the fresh batch of arepas in the oven. I think the first ones were better but still the tasted the same – not heavy, not too light, ah just right!

More info to feed a new arepas addiction

A great story about PAN and arepas under Chavez at Papaya Pate.

A search on Youtube will show you more demos of making arepas than you can poke a stick at. This one proves that food is the international language.

Casa Iberica is at 25 Johnston St Fitzroy 3065
(03) 9417 7106

The alleged trading hours are:
Monday to Thursday: 9am to 5pm
Friday: 9am to 6pm
Saturday: 9am to 1pm
Sunday: closed.

Note: There are more gluten-free flours in this shop than your average supermarket – PAN, chestnut, chickpea, manioc … to name but a few. You can even buy pre-cooked arepas, stuffed with cheese. Just steer clear of the Portuguese custard tarts.

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Blogger Lucy said...

Will be giving these a go, I can tell you. I LOVED that post on GFG.

Those tarts are, of course, full of gluten-y stuff, but boy, are they good...

Perhaps a tortilla press isn't such a bad idea??

8:19 am  
Blogger docwitch said...

They look sooo delish! I'm definitely going to have to get hold of some of that P.A.N. It could well make up for the feelings of (good) bread deprivation that being gluten free can induce.

9:28 am  
Anonymous SarahKate said...

Ohhh... I am so jealous! I live in Sydney and I can't seem to find any shops that sell Latin American ingredients. Well done!

11:00 am  
Blogger Johanna said...

entering casa iberica makes me feel like entering another country! never heard of arepas but now am interested - a friend of mine has a tortilla press so a tortilla making session is on our list of things to do together - I am looking forward to that

11:55 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

SarahKate - I came across a Sydney based latin american grocery that mail orders PAN and other such things throughout Australia.

I figure there must be a good latin american walk in grocery in that vast city - maybe follow the portugese tart trail?

2:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:25 pm  
Blogger the cook said...

Yum! Esp with the chilli beans. This would definitely get my kitchen mojo back too!

10:05 am  
Blogger FoodieFi said...

Those baked eggs look particularly impressive. Nice work taking on a new ingredient - and what a curious one at that - and coming up with such enjoyable results!

11:18 pm  
Blogger jamesbluntknife said...

oh my god, i wish i'd seen your comment about the tarts!

i went to casa iberica on friday after seeing your post about arepas, and bought some choriza for my mother (at a ridiculously cheap price) as well as 3 packets of the harina PAN for myself to play with.

feeling a little peckish i ordered one of those tarts and left...after taking one bite of the tart though, i went back and got another 3, and then another 3.

they are just too good!

by the way i loved your post on arepas - i'm keen to give them a go as well as tamales.

8:31 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Can't wait to see your post on tamales!

2:31 pm  
Blogger Daniel said...

Hi... I'm a Venezuelan in Melbourne (There are some of us here:D), nice job with the arepas you just need a little practice with the shaping of the tipical arepa. In Venezuela we have an electric appliance called "tosti arepa" (you can google it) that works like a charm for making the arepas, you just put the "masa" balls in the "tosti arepa" and in eight minutes you'll have an almost perfect arepa (I say "almost" because the only "perfect" arepas are the ones my grandmother makes by hand, she makes the kind called "telitas" which are big but very thin!)

7:18 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hi Daniel - thanks for the encouragement. Of course I really, really want one of those arepa makers now!

8:51 am  

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