It's election time in Venezuela, with Democrat Henrique Capriles attempting to unseat long-time leader/dictator Hugo Chavez this weekend.
Plagued with violence, corruption and lengthy warnings from the US government, the current situation in Venezuela has been less than tourist-friendly in recent years. Which is a big bummer considering that their country is so beautiful and their food is so yummy and healthy.
So we are keeping good thoughts for good changes and in the meantime, we are psyched to get a taste of what is to come, courtesy of Eat Well Venezuela correspondent Marianella Herrera, MD, MSc.
We tend to associate rice with most traditional Latin diets, but the staple grain in Venezuela is actually corn, most commonly enjoyed as arepas. Arepas are a pancake-like cornbread, way thinner than the cheese/corn bombs served at Manhattan street fairs. They're eaten as an accompaniment with entrees, or topped with protein to make a small meal (in this case they might take the form of a stuffed cornbread pocket, sort of like Venezuelan pita bread).
Arepas can make a great, healthy breakfast or light lunch if you choose the right fillings. Lean proteins like fish, chicken and turkey or sliced avocado are the perfect additions to this gluten-free, whole-grain base. Since arepas constitute daily fare for Venezuelans there are plenty of places to grab one, but Marinella has recommended two in particular if your travels bring you to Caracas: El Budare de la Castellana which is considered the definitive spot for arepas in the La Castenella section of the city (5475 Av. Principal de la Castellana, La Castellana, Caracas); and Tostadas Bello Monte which has been serving them up for more than 50 years (Av. Principal de Bello Monte, Colinas de Bello Monte, Caracas).
Yes, that's right. I said chocolate. And it IS good for you. Really. It's because cocoa is derived from a plant, and, like all plants, it contains health-promoting phytochemicals. The cocoa bean has been touted for its potential antioxidant qualities in particular, which can help protect against heart disease.
Turns out the world's highest-rated cocoa comes from Venezuela -- in fact, chances are good that when you're eating fancy Swiss chocolate, it's been made with Venezuelan cocoa. If you are in Barlovento, Chuao, Sur del Lago or Paria (the major cocoa producing regions of the country), treat yourself to a sampling of the local goods. Just remember, keep it dark to avoid added sugar and saturated fats (65% or higher), and indulge in moderation. Heart healthy does not mean calorie free!
Venezuelans spend a fair amount of time in the dairy section of the supermarket. While full-fat dairy should be limited due to its high saturated fat content, moderate amounts of low-fat cheese are a good source of calcium and can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. According to Marinella, the fresh white cheeses of Venezuela are worth the splurge. Plus, these particular types of cheese actually have less fat and fewer calories than their traditional aged counterparts. Cuajada Andina or any type of goat cheese are naturally lowest in fat and so are good options if you're keeping an eye on calories (so you can eat more chocolate, obviously).
The ají dulce is a small pepper related to the habanero, but is sweeter with less intense heat. It is a quintessential flavor in Venezuelan cooking. And the ají dulce doesn't just bring taste and aroma to the party -- it's also rich in vitamin C and anitoxidants (remember them from the cocoa bean)? The unique flavor of these peppers really shines in guasacaca, a basic sauce of onions, ají dulce, cilantro, avocados and tomatoes. Try guasacaca on some of Venezuela's local beef, which is always grass-fed.