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El Dorado cuisine. Black beans plus: Venezuelan food goes beyond basics

By Habeeb SalloumSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 1988

Piritu, Venezuela

TO complement its scenic landscape of tropical lowlands, superb beaches, and majestic snowcapped mountains, Venezuela is the home of a fascinating array of fruits and vegetables. Employing these with meats and a variety of spices, the multicultural inhabitants have developed a diverse and delectable cuisine.

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The towering Andes Mountains and the Amazon jungles have kept Venezuela separated from the surrounding countries. So today, this home of many cultures has a rich ``kitchen'' - a culinary world somewhat different from those of neighboring lands. Historically, the coastal subtropical rain forests frightened the early conquistadors for a time.

But the forests did not quash their eagerness to discover the mythical El Dorado - a haunting, fairy-tale city of gold.

Conquistadors fought and overwhelmed hostile coastal Indians, then penetrated inland. But, of course, they did not find the city of their dreams.

Instead, they found a dramatic ``sea'' of lofty mountains, with wild rivers descending to fertile valleys.

Here, they discovered that all types of fruits and vegetables could flourish - from tropical plants to colder-climate crops. They settled this beautiful land and, with the combination of many fruits and vegetables, developed their own generally unique cuisine.

Unlike Mexico and Peru, Venezuela had no great, ``classical'' Indian civilization to form the base of its cooking.

The original inhabitants of the country, however, had a number of their own simple foods, which are preserved to some degree in its cuisine today.

When the conquistadors in the early 16th century began to settle, they incorporated these dishes into their cooking, which had already been heavily influenced by the Moorish invasion of the Spanish peninsula.

As the years slipped by, other ethnic groups came to the country with their own specialties. A number of these specialities also began to creep into the Venezuelan cuisine and are now a permanent part of it.

Hence, with a base of Indian- and Moorish-influenced Spanish cooking - and embellished by Chinese, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, and German cooking - the modern Venezuelan cuisine is richly varied.

Maize, or corn, formed the basis of Aztec and Inca food. It's still the preferred grain in Central and South America.

In Venezuela, too, the Indians made a corn bread, which is called arepa. It's the country's specialty and is eaten in great quantities by almost all the inhabitants.

In its plain form, arepa is prepared from corn flour, salt, and water, and is rather tasteless. Nevertheless, this primitive Indian bread can be enhanced in many ways.

It is delectable when cheese, eggs, and spices are added to the dough, which is then made into small patties or cylinders and fried. It is at its best, however, when served hot and stuffed with various types of cheeses.

Other corn dishes are also popular:

Cachapas, fried in pancake form and filled with cheese or meat.

Empanadas, cheese or meat-filled turnovers.

Tequenos, cylindrical fried delicacies stuffed with white cheese.

Hallacas, a combination of cornmeal, meat, vegetables, and spices.

In the humble homes where traditional foods are still common, everyday fare might be:

Guasacaca, a semihot salad relish eaten with meat.

Parrilla criolla, marinated beef cooked over charcoal.

Hervido and sancocho, both meat or fish and vegetable stews.

Along the seacoast, where the seafood is plentiful, the housewife expands her menu to include such dishes as:

Sopas de pescados, seafood soups.

Pescado en escabeche, a pickled fish dish of Moorish origin introduced by the Spaniards.

Overshadowing all these dishes throughout the country is pabell'on, the king of Venezuelan food. The national dish of the country, it is the favorite of both rich and poor.

Made from meat, rice, and black beans and served with arepas, it combines the food of the Indians, Moors, and Spaniards.

Whether served in the primitive jungle huts, in the villas on the cool mountain plateaus, or the mansions of the wealthy in Caracas, pabell'on is Venezuela's food par excellence.

The black beans included in this dish are often served by themselves as the main course, especially in the homes of the peasants and city laborers. The people are so enamored with this dish that they call it caviar criollo (native caviar).

No traveler to Venezuela should return without sampling black beans.

In the immense diversity of foods, one is sure to find a few that will leave a pleasant memory.

On the other hand, if a lover of fine foods cannot travel to that South American land, then the following recipes will give a tantalizing insight into the varied foods of Venezuela.

Caraotas Negras - Mashed Black Beans 1 1/2 cups black beans, washed and soaked overnight in 4 cups water 4 tablespoons olive oil 2 medium-size onions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, crushed 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 1 hot pepper, finely chopped 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/2 teaspoon cumin