Day 31: Little Venice

Venezuela is one of seventeen mega-diverse countries in the world.  It is home to the worlds tallest waterfall (Angel Falls is fifteen times taller than Niagara Falls) and the largest lake in South America.   In spite of the contemporary political and economic crisis, Venezuelans are among the world's happiest people.  As I write this post, there are protests and riots taking place in Venezuela.  Some of the best coverage of what is going on comes from Al-Jazeera (Perhaps they feel a special connection due to their coverage of the Arab Spring.).  Venezuela, was once a hub for immigrants from all over Europe and the Middle East, but is now producing a mass exodus out of the country as people seek jobs, safety, and security.

Any meal with these guys is non-stop conversation

Where does Venezuela get its name?

Although there are numerous theories one how Venezuela got its name, one of the most popular ones is as follows.  The Indians who lived around Lake Maracaibo built their houses on stilts to protect from rising water.  The Spanish conquistador and explorer, Alonso de Ojeda, saw the stilted houses over the water and it reminded him of Venice Italy.  He named the area "Veneziola" which means little Venice.  Today, Maracaibo is the seat of the oil industry for Venezuela.  A friend from Venezuela, but not from Maracaibo, says that Marachuchos are like Texans.  Venezuelans say that Maracuchos are to Venezuela what Argentinians to South America.  

The Food Scene

"Any party pretending to be a good party must have tequeños" Gerardo tells me.

Venezuelan food is intrinsically social.  Food is designed in small, often transportable, portions that are perfect for street food vendors and parties.  One of the most notable party foods is Tequeños, a fried cheese stick.  Gerardo says that a party is not a party without tequeños.  People situate themselves close to the kitchen door so that they can get the tequeños while they are hot--and still on the plate.  Less geographically inclined party-goers will have to wait for the second plate!

Areapas are somehow small and big at the same time.  You just have to dive in!

Arepas are the national food of Venezuela.  While many other South American countries have Arepas of some kind, the Venezuelan variant is king.  Arepas start with a Maize or corn flour biscuit.  These are stuffed with more than a hundred different flavors and are served (in country) at stalls called Arepera.  Arepas are a typical comfort food that people eat after a night of partying.  Venezuelans are very proud of their beauty queens.  One such beauty queen Susana Duijm (Miss Venezuela, Universe and World in 1955) has an Arepa named after her called Reina Pepiada (translated "polka dot queen").  There are endless possible combinations of pork, beef, and chicken mixed with other fillings.

Maracaibo, situated in the West, has their own variation of the Arepa called Patacones.  Patacones follow a similar pattern to Arepas with a plethora of options of fillings.  The unique thing about patacones is the outside.  Rather than using the corn biscuit, patacones are made from a crispy, fried plantain.

 

Fresh cheeses are a staple food served alongside (on or in) many other foods.  These cheeses are made fresh daily in Venezuela.  Mandocas and Cachapas are two such foods.  Mandocas are made from plantain dough.  They are fried and served with Cheese.  Cachapas are pancakes served with fresh sweet cheese.

Cilantros Arepa Grill

Cilantros is the best place in Houston for Arepas and other Venezuelan delicacies.  The restaurant started in a gas station, where they couldn't even sell drinks.  Now they are in their own space on Mason road which is centrally located to Houston's growing Venezuelan population.  Juan and his wife Jacky and as hospitable as they are talented chefs.

Juan and Jacky create great food that they are proud to share with their guests.  Its hard to beat service like that.

Here is whats going on in Venezuela