What the healing power of the arepa implies in the movie ‘Encanto’

(CNN) — “You just cured my hand with an arepa with cheese,” Mirabel Madrigal tells her mother, Julieta, in the movie “Encanto,” while holding an arepa de queso, a round dough of corn.

“I healed your hand with love,” Julieta replies.

“Charm,” which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film this year, is the story of the magical Madrigal family, who, 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 highlighting the arepa as an essential part of its cuisine.

“They are totally comfort food, although it is also part of the daily diet, and it is a very important part of our daily culture,” said Carmen Ángel, chef and co-owner of Restaurantes Carmen in Cartagena and Medellín, Colombia.

A cook prepares arepas in the kitchen of the Arepa Lady restaurant in the Queens borough of New York City on January 27, 2022.

Arepas are what Colombians consider their bread, said Alejandro Osorio, co-owner of Arepa Lady Restaurant, an areperia based in New York City with locations in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. Traditional arepas are eaten for meals throughout the day, and while they can be prepared in a number of ways, essentially, arepas are made from cornmeal.

The corn undergoes nixtamalization, which is the removal of the hard outer shell of the corn with lime water. Once the corn is soft, it is ground with a little salt and made into a dough and shaped into a thin round and grilled over hot coals, Angel said.

There are several types of arepas only in Colombia

The type of arepa you eat depends on the type of corn you use, what you put in the dough, and the Colombian region the recipe originates from.

A sweeter arepa, called arepa de choclo, is made with fresh sweet corn. In a restaurant like Arepa Lady, Osorio said, these arepas can be served with butter and cheese, or they can have meat inside if the customer requests it. The restaurant also serves cheese arepas, like the ones Mirabel ate in “Encanto,” which are made with mozzarella cheese inside the dough.

On the Colombian coast, locals fry an arepa with an egg inside, Osorio said. In Medellín, Osorio’s hometown, arepas are often sold as street food, served with condensed milk as a topping or even just butter and salt.

The versatility of the arepa speaks to how accessible it is to all types of Colombians, according to Ángel. Its many variations also demonstrate how entrenched dishes in the diet of indigenous peoples have continued to thrive amid modern adaptations of foods, he added.

“I feel that arepas are like one of the foods that almost all Colombians eat on a daily basis, regardless of their (socioeconomic) status, regardless of where they live, regardless of their religion,” Angel said.

arepas

The Joint, an arepa with shredded beef, beans, sweet plantains and cheese, is a specialty at Ceci’s Arepa Joint in East Meadow, New York.

The healing power of arepas

Beyond the cultural connection, arepas are also a source of nutritional benefits, as they contain vitamins A and C. These two essential nutrients aid in immunity and eye health, according to Andie Lee Gonzalez, a registered dietitian based in Palmview, Texas. Vitamin C offers antioxidants and builds an immunity pathway, she added, while vitamin A supports retinal health and eye vision.

A serving of arepa will have about 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrates, so González suggests adding vegetables, low-fat dairy, or a lean source of protein to make the arepa a balanced meal.

While arepas may not heal a cut on someone’s hand like in “Encanto,” Gonzalez said the film’s message about the dish is how “staple foods in our cultures are part of our lives.”

“When I saw that part of the movie, it really brings to light how in our Hispanic and Latino community we use food to heal the soul,” Gonzalez said.

This is how a cheese arepa is prepared

You can make your own cheese arepas following Chef Carmen Ángel’s recipe. Ángel uses the Colombian cheese called Queso Paipa, but mozzarella is a good substitute. You can have arepas as a snack, with scrambled eggs for breakfast, or top them with the toppings of your choice (like avocado, chorizo, grilled chicken, and tomato) for a Colombian-inspired lunch.

Recipe for 6 arepas

Preparation and cooking time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of cornmeal
  • ½ teaspoon of 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 cheese (or other semi-hard cheese that melts like Gruyère or fontina)
  • More cheese to melt inside the arepa (optional)

Instructions

1. In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal with the salt and warm water, and with your hands, mix to form a dough.

2. Add the milk and continue mixing.

3. Add 3 tablespoons of butter, mix well, then add 1 cup of cheese and mix to combine.

4. Preheat a large skillet over medium-low heat.

5. Divide the dough into 6 arepas or disks, using both hands to make sure they are even in shape and no more than 1/2-inch thick.

6. Add a little butter to the pan and move to cover the bottom of the pan.

7. Cook arepas 5 to 6 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Booking.

8. If desired, using a knife, carefully open the arepas while they are still hot and fill with more cheese of your choice. To melt additional cheese, place 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.