“You just healed my hand with an arepa con queso,” Mirabel Madrigal tells her mother, Julieta, in the movie “Encanto,” while holding a cheesy arepa – a round corn cake.
“I healed your hand with love,” Julieta replies.
“Encanto,” which won the Oscar for best animated feature this year, follows the magical Madrigal family who all, except for Mirabel, have superpowers. While the film’s themes are based on family and love, its foundations are rooted in Colombian culture, which includes spotlighting the arepa as an essential part of its cuisine.
“They’re like total comfort food, even though it’s kind of like part of the daily diet, and it’s very much part of our daily culture,” said Carmen Angel, chef and co-owner of Carmen Restaurants in Cartagena and Medellín, Colombia.
Arepas are what Colombians consider to be their bread, according to Alejandro Osorio, co-owner of New York City-based restaurant Arepa Lady, which has locations in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. The traditional cakes are eaten at meals throughout the day, and while they can be prepared in various ways, at their very core, arepas are cornmeal.
The corn has undergone nixtamalization, which is the stripping of a corn’s hard outer shell using limewater. After the corn is soft, it is ground with a little bit of salt into a dough and shaped into a thin patty that is grilled over embers, Angel said.
What kind of arepa you eat depends on what type of corn is used, what gets put in the batter and the Colombian region from which the recipe originates.
A sweeter arepa, called the arepa de choclo, is made with fresh sweet corn. At a restaurant like Arepa Lady, Osorio said, these arepas can then be served with butter and cheese, or meat can be folded inside upon request. The eatery also serves arepas de queso, like what Mirabel ate in “Encanto,” which are made with mozzarella inside the batter.
On the Colombian coast, locals fry an arepa with an egg inside, Osorio said. In Osorio’s hometown of Medellín, the dish is often sold as a street food, served with condensed milk as a topping.
The arepa’s versatility speaks to how accessible it is to all types of Colombians, according to Angel. Its many variations also demonstrates how dishes rooted in the diet of Indigenous people have continued to thrive among modern adaptations of food, she added.
“I feel like arepas are kind of like one of the foods that still pretty much every single Colombian will eat on a daily basis, regardless of their (socioeconomic) status, regardless of where they live, regardless of what religion they are,” Angel said.
Beyond cultural connection, arepas are also a source of nutritional benefit, given that they contain vitamins C and A. These two essential nutrients aid in immunity and eye health, according to Andie Lee Gonzalez, a registered dietician based in Palmview, Texas. Vitamin C offers antioxidants and builds a pathway of immunity, she added, while vitamin A supports retina health and eye vision.
An arepa serving will have about 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrates, so Gonzalez suggests adding vegetables, low-fat diary or a lean source of protein to make an arepa a balanced meal.
While arepas might not heal a gash in someone’s hand like in “Encanto,” Gonzalez said the film’s message about the dish lies in how “the staple foods in our cultures are part of our lives.”
“When I saw that piece of the movie, it really brings to light how our Hispanic and Latinx community, we do use food to heal the soul,” Gonzalez said.
Arepas de Queso
(Colombian Cheese Arepas)
You can make your own cheese arepas by following Chef Carmen Angel’s recipe. Angel uses the Colombian queso Paipa, but mozzarella is a fine substitute. Try arepas as a snack, with scrambled eggs for breakfast, or piled high with toppings of your choice (such as avocado, chorizo, grilled chicken and tomato) for a Colombian-inspired lunch.
Makes 6 arepas
Prep and cook time: 25 minutes
• 1 cup cornmeal
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1/3 cup warm water
• 1/3 cup milk
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature, plus more for the pan
• 1 cup grated mozzarella (or another meltable, semihard cheese like Gruyère or fontina)
• More cheese for melting inside the arepa (optional)
1. In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal with the salt and warm water, and using your hands, mix to form a masa, or dough.
2. Add the milk and keep mixing.
3. Knead in 3 tablespoons butter, mix thoroughly and then add 1 cup cheese and mix to combine.
4. Preheat a large skillet over medium-low heat.
5. Divide the masa into 6 “patties” or disks, using both hands to make sure the disks are uniform and are no more than ½-inch thick.
6. Add a pat of butter into the skillet and move around to coat the bottom of the pan.
7. Cook the arepas for 5 to 6 minutes on each side or until nice and brown. Remove from heat.
8. If desired, using a knife, carefully open the arepas while still warm and fill with more cheese of your choice. To melt the additional cheese, put the stuffed arepas in a toaster oven or return to the skillet over low heat.
Recipe courtesy of Carmen Angel of Carmen Restaurant Group in Colombia.
Top caption: A cook prepares arepas in the kitchen of the Arepa Lady restaurant in the Queens borough of New York City on January 27, 2022.
Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening and closing, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.