Everyday Elaine Gomez Lozano sets up her cart on the corner of Carrera 11 and Calle 38 in Cartagena’s Old City and gets to work on making handmade arepas from scratch. With her food stand positioned in front of the crumbling wall surrounding the city’s historical district, Elaine caters to the passing locals and tourists looking for a quick and savory bite. For 40 years, Elaine (whom I’ve come to refer to as “The Arepa Lady”) has stood on this very corner whipping up her modest Colombian arepas by flattening and shaping the maize, tossing the arepas in a vat of hot oil and serving them alongside colorful salsas in vibrant hues of green and red.
Arepas are sold on almost every corner of Cartagena–some arepas are left sitting out, growing progressively drier under the hot sun while other arepas huddle under heat lamps in corner stores. The arepa–a staple of Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine–is a type of flat bread made of cornmeal with the word “arepa” said to have originated from the Caracas natives, translating to “maize” or corn. In Colombia, the arepa is deeply rooted in the cuisine of the indigenous people and colonial farmers, making this small treat an important part of the country’s culinary fabric. Usually eaten for breakfast or lunch, Arepas con huevos are traditional in Colombia and can be likened to a crispy, round hot pocket with a sweet, corn exterior and cooked egg–often mixed with meat–on the inside.
When I travel I tend to turn to the streets for the best representation of a country’s local fare and often find street vendors will sell dishes unique to the region and culture. While on assignment to condense the Cartagena food scene into ten, easily digestible plates for an article on FOOD & WINE, I came upon Elaine and her unassuming Colombian arepa stand. Finding Elaine was a fortuitous discovery made after a few wrong turns inside the winding streets of the maze-like Old City. Although you can’t swing a bag without knocking over five food vendors in Colombia, Elaine’s arepas stood out simply because she was making them fresh and on-the-spot.
Like an expert to whom a process has become second nature, Elaine kneaded out the cornmeal, slapped the yellow dough between her bronzed hands, magically dropped an egg into the fold and tossed the arepas in bubbling hot oil only to fish them out at the precise moment when ready. The first bite of the arepa is fragrant and savory, with the crisp maize mingling with the taste of egg and beef on your palate. The accompanying homemade condiments range from fresh guacamole to a fiery red salsa to a cooling, white sauce reminiscent of tzatziki, each one changing the flavor of the arepa and creating a new symphony of flavors. For less than the cost of a New York subway ride, anyone passing by can enjoy a treat as true to Colombia as the local making them.
My attempts to excitedly tell Elaine I would be writing about her arepas for “an American food publication” was lost in translation so instead I took down her e-mail, wrote down the street location and vowed to recommend her food to all who visit. Almost a year later, I found myself back in Cartagena and hungrily heading towards my favorite arepa lady, letting my stomach lead the way. I eagerly walked towards Carrera 11 and Calle 38 only to recognize everything–-the stand, the street, the food–-but not Elaine. Perhaps it was her daughter that was now whipping up the arepas or maybe Elaine had simply taken the day off but that crispy arepa was without a doubt the same it had been 365 days earlier—perfection.
After my Cartagena in 10 Plates article was published, I tried contacting Elaine to share the news of her much-deserved moment of fame. In vain, I tried to decipher the scrap of paper where she had hastily scribbled down an e-mail address but never received a response to my message, unsure whether my note had ever reached her eyes. Elaine might still be oblivious to the waves of fans she has created among my family, friends and readers so, if nothing else, consider this my homage to The Arepa Lady, her wonderful food and 40 years of making people smile–whether she knows it or not.
Your turn! Share a favorite meal you’ve had while traveling in the comments section below!