In each and every ill-timed and poorly-placed New York street fair, you’ll find a MozzArepa cart turning out this New York fusion food, the Colombian/Venezualan corn arepa married to stretchy, salty Italian mozzarella cheese. MozzArepas are easy to replicate at home—if you don’t have any P.A.N. flour around, instructions are included for substituting regular yellow cornmeal.
This post is part of the Eating New York series.
A fact of city life is having a street fair crop up exactly when and where you don’t need it the most. This happens all the time, especially by your apartment, and is all the more annoying for being entirely superfluous. All those people walking around the street fair? They are annoyed New Yorkers trying to get to their apartment, or possibly tourists. Street fairs are all the same (yeah, even San Gennaro), like exactly the same, down to the booths of pointless tchotchkes, the incense, and the food carts. There is, however, one, and only one, redeeming aspect of the Manhattan street fair: the mozzarepa stand (which, if memory serves, used to always be called MozzArepa Xpress). The portmanteau of mozzarella and arepa, the mozzarepa—a trademarked name, as the company is eager to point out—is made up of two South American style corn cakes with melted cheese sandwiched in the middle. Much like hot nuts (!), mozzarepa come with the exclamation mark implied. It’s the RuPaul of street fair food: in your face, over the top, and inherently lovable.
Arepas, a Colombian and Venezualan classic
Arepas themselves, the corn cake part of the deal, have a pre-colonial history and are a staple of both Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine. Arepas with corn kernels and cheese in the batter are called arepas de choclo, and are a Colombian specialty. Slap some Italian mozzarella between no less than two of those not-insubstantial arepas, though, and you’ve got yourself an only-in-New-York street food classic. Well actually, these arepas rellenas de queso over at My Colombian Recipes are actually made with mozzarella—New York mozzarepas appear to be a cross between those and arepas de choclo, which are made with queso fresco, a salted fresh cheese similar to farmer’s.
Sourcing masarepa (arepa corn flour) and substitutions
Unlike tortillas, which are made with masa harina (nixtamilized corn flour; the common brand is Maseca), arepas are traditionally made with masarepa (pre-cooked corn flour, also known by the common brand name, P.A.N.). It seems that most arepa recipes call for white P.A.N., but here we’re going with yellow because that is most definitely the standard for the street food version. You can find masarepa in Latin groceries; I’ve not seen it at local supermarkets (and I live in L.A.).
There is a distinction between cornmeal, which is raw, and masarepa, which is parboiled and will absorb a lot more liquid. If you don’t want to track down masarepa or don’t have access to it, you can substitute double the amount of fine-ground yellow cornmeal. The first time, many moon ago, when I was called to recreate mozzarepas, I chased down this excellent recipe by Melissa Strauss of Kitchen-Tested, which uses cornmeal specifically.
Making MozzArepas, street fair style
Arepas are a homey food, and making them isn’t difficult. For this corny, cheesy version, you have the added step of blending the corn kernels with the milk. After that you warm the milk until it’s thickened and foamy, just about to boil. Pour it over the dry ingredients, getting the mozzarella in the batter nice and gooey. Stir until you get a thick pancake consistency batter, and you’re ready to griddle.
To make the mozzarepa sandwich, wait until the patties are golden on both sides. Lay a piece of sliced mozzarella over one, then flip a second arepa on top of the first. Wait till the cheese gets melty and stuff the whole thing into your fist while rolling your eyes at tourists.
Mozzarepas – Corn Arepas with Cheese (dairy)
- 1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed (see note)
- 1 ½ cup milk
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 1 ¼ cup masarepa precooked yellow corn flour (P.A.N.) – 155 g – see note for substitutions
- 3 Tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
- 4 slices aged mozzarella – not fresh
- Pulse the corn with milk in a blender two to three times, retaining a bit of texture.
- Pour the corn and milk mixture into a small pot along with the butter. Over medium heat, bring just to a boil. Remove from the heat.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the masarepa flour, sugar, salt and shredded mozzarella.
- Pour the hot milk mixture over the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Stir to combine. The batter's consistency should be like that of pancake batter.
- Heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat, lightly oiling it with cooking spray. Ladle the mixture, about 1/3 cup of batter at a time, onto the hot griddle, forming a pancake about 4-5" / 10-13 cm in diameter.
- Cook the batter for just 1-2 minutes on the first side-it burns easily, so watch it. Flip and cook on the second side for another 30 seconds-1 minute, until golden but not dark.
- When a cake is ready, immediately place a slice of mozzarella on top. When a second cake comes off the griddle, place it directly on top of the cheese, forming a sandwich. Continue cooking and assembling all the arepas.
- Turn the flame under the griddle/skillet to low. One by one, return the cheese-stuffed arepas to the pan to melt the cheese and heat them up again.