Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Living La Vida Venezolana (Venezuelan Life)

From the ages of 9 through 11, I lived in Valencia, Venezuela with my parents. My father's job had sent him there to install, set up and train crews to operate the closure department in the Owens Illinois glass plant there. Closure is where caps and lids are made for the bottles already being produced. Dad worked in the closure plant in Glassboro, NJ, and had already gone down in 1962 to discuss the project and, I imagine, work out the viability of the project. They asked him to return in early 1964 and told him they'd pay for his family to join him including tuition for me to attend school and selling their home if they wished. Since he'd built most of the house himself on property my mother's father had given to her, they opted to keep the house. But, Mom and I moved to Valencia along with all of our furniture and our car. Only the dog stayed home. We lived in a hotel for two months while the furniture made its way to port in Caracas, apparently taking a slow boat by way of China.

Being the coward and picky eater I was in my youth, it was rare for me to try anything "foreign". Yet, it was the move to Venezuela that introduced me to Chinese Food and pizza (honestly - I don't remember eating pizza before moving there.) My parents were more adventurous. I did fall in love with the fruits I found in the country, such as mango, papaya, guayaba (guava) and platanos (plantains or cooking bananas). Mom cooked the platanos regularly. They're much easier to cook than you might think, although I've learned there are also more ways to cook them than I'd known as a child.  

Dad told us of being treated to breakfast once at the cafe in the "Mobil Sheraton" near the plant. To my child's mind, this was the most horrible food I'd ever heard of. What he had was fried octopus tentacles with black beans and rice topped with a fried egg and covered with octopus ink gravy. I know now that what he ate wasn't served everywhere, but it was enough for me to refuse to eat anything I didn't understand! 

He also enjoyed his first escargot and espresso while we were there. The hotel we lived in had a restaurant where the French manager, Madame, would offer both French and Venezuelan food choices. She convinced Dad to try the snails. He actually liked them and ordered them on occasion thereafter. I lived on chicken consomme with a wonderful cheese that was melted into the bottom of the bowl. If we went to the Chinese restaurant, I would only eat tomato soup while my parents ate sweet and sour shrimp and butterflied shrimp. We were such frequent customers that the management gave my parents gifts of porcelain rice bowls and spoons both Christmases we were there.

One of the Venezuelan restaurants we enjoyed was called La Parilla (literally, charcoal grill) where I fell in love with Pollo en Canasta. Not a uniquely Venezuelan food, but a uniquely Venezuelan venue and presentation. Try ordering Chicken in a Basket in the US and actually GETTING a basket with chicken and fries in it!! Plus, the smells of all that meat cooking over an open grill was enough to get even this stubborn eater's saliva glands flowing.

Since I've grown up, my palate has also grown up. I've discovered what food pleasures I missed while living in Venezuela. Some of these things are Hallacas (these most closely resemble Tamales), Arepas, Pabellon Criollo (Black Beans, Rice and Shredded Beef), Carne Mechada (pulled beef - this resembles Ropa Vieja popular in Puerto Rico and Cuba), Pan de Jamón (ham loaf - this reminds me of Pepperoni roll) and this one that I'm going to have to try, Pan Dulce Relleno de Queso y Guayaba (Sweet Bread Stuffed with Guava and Cheese).

I'll leave you with some images of the foods I've mentioned (all with links to recipes) to get your mouth watering and wanting to try something knew. I really regret that I was such a coward when I was there. I missed so many years of meal enjoyment!

Christmas Dinner of hallacas, pernil, pan de jamon and ensalada de pollo
Hallacas -jlastras, Wikimedia Commons
Pabellon Criollo -Taxman, Wikimedia Commons
Arepas -Steven Depolo, Wikimedia Commons
Pan Dulce Relleno de Queso y Guayaba
Pan de Jamon -Rufino, Wikimedia Commons
Platanos Fritos (fried plantains) -Dtarazona, Wikimedia Commons   


  1. Pabellon Criollo and Carne Mechada are two dishes that I wouldn't mind trying. What a rich experience you must have had while living in Venezuela.

  2. Growing up, I never ate anything beyond chicken, beef, spaghetti, hot dogs, hamburgers, assorted vegetables and noodles. The first time I ate a taco (I was 19), I loved it. Then I had crab and realized all the foods I'd been missing my whole life. I'll try just about anything as long as it looks and smells good. Please find my A-Z Challenge here: http://myheartblogstoyou.blogspot.com/

  3. I'm still a picky eater but some of these images make me want to branch out! Yum.

    I’m A-Z Blogging on Langley Writes about Writing and Langley’s Rich and Random Life

  4. Mmmm....Now I'm hungry! I love my mom's Cuban food...some of the best. :)

  5. I'm not a particularly adventurous eater. I think I have the taste buds of a twelve-year-old. ;O)

    I’m A-Z Blogging, and my “V” post is right here.

  6. You have me salivating. I love Guayaba, and as for Arepas, soooo good to eat. I travelled quite a bit in South America, mostly Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. Love Parilla cooking, the smells are as much a part of the experience as the taste.

  7. @Word Nerd - I know a lot of people like that. I look back now and wonder what made me so fearful.

    @Sarah Allen - Thank you so much!

    @Tony - I've reconnected with a lot of the kids (well, they're not now) I went to school with down there and they talk so much about how they liked this or that and I've often wondered if we had stayed longer, like many of them did, if my resistance would have finally worn down. Better late than never! Dad went down one more time, but to Sao Paolo and caught amoebas while he was there. He withdrew from the International division after that trip or I might have had another adventure to tell.

  8. @Renata - there are several Cuban restaurants in Philadelphia, but there is a Caribbean restaurant within 2 miles of me that is very good. They offer Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban (and a little Mexican - so it's more pan Hispanic), but oh is it good!! I have to say, though, I'm not a fan of mofongo because of the garlic.

    @Langley - I think you'd be pleasantly surprised at some of these recipes. They're not spicy (although hot sauce is usually available to those who want it), but more savory. I've never liked corn bread because of the grittiness, but arepas are more finely ground and can be filled with so many different things.

    @Theresa - When we went to Venezuela I wouldn't even eat cheese on hamburgers or on pizza, I was so afraid of anything I hadn't seen. I'm only just now starting to eat crab (pretty much in bisque only) after a lifetime of refusing to even try it.

    @PK - They were the best two years of my childhood! That's all I can say. I'll never forget them.

  9. Very interesting post. I really want to start cooking more ethnic food.

  10. I'd probably lose a lot of weight living in Venezuela. I had the same issues with Japan.

  11. Interesting...and some look appetizing.

  12. Ok, now I'm really hungry. Note to self- don't read blogs like this before breakfast!

  13. @Lisa - then my work here is done. LOL

    @L.L.Woodward - it was, and they do!

    @Marie Anne - I have a friend who lost over 100 pounds while on a mission to eastern Canada where seafood reigned. She still will not touch it.

    @Amy - me, too. I eat it, but don't cook it often, except for Mexican.

  14. I too lived in Valencia, Venezuela 1976-1977 Sophomore year of high school, and my best memories were the beaches of course. I did have hallacas at Christmas time at someones home, who worked for Uniroyal with my dad. They had olives and ham and were really good, as the bannana leaves added imense flavor. My favorite food item was definitely the Arepas with the shredded beef (as in the Criollo de Pabeon plate), or even just with butter. I found the PAN corn flour and have made Arepas at home, but since I am from mexican heritage, we do like adding chili flakes/powder to the dough mix. My family enjoys them with cheese, avocado, or beans & shredded meat. The dessert the most I enjoyed there was a rum cake, so elegantly decorated with chocolate curls, cocoanut shred, coins, fillings of different sorts, and soaked with rum of course. My parents brought it home for my 15th birthday, and it was really an exotic type of cake, and wish I could find one this day in California!