Arepas, pupusas, and gorditas are similar, in that they are all corn cakes that are cooked on a griddle. But each one is the specialty of a different country and has its own distinct characteristics.
Arepas Are Popular in Venezuela and Colombia
They are made with a special type of cornmeal called masarepa. Masarepa is produced commercially nowadays but was traditionally prepared at home by soaking dried white or yellow corn to remove the germ, then cooking the corn and grinding it into a fine wet meal that was then shaped into arepas. Commercially produced masarepa is a dried version of this cooked cornmeal, which is shelf stable but must be rehydrated with water to make the arepa dough. The arepas are cooked on a lightly oiled griddle until they are browned on each side. The cornmeal dough gives them a creamy texture on the inside, while the griddle produces a crispy crust on the outside. They are often split in half and stuffed with fillings like cheese, shredded beef, or even chicken salad. There are many variations on arepas, including arepas made with hominy corn (mote or maiz peto) and deep fried arepas.
Pupusas Are Another Type of Corncake From El Salvador
Pupusas are larger and flatter than arepas, and are made with masa harina rather than masarepa. Masa harina is a type of cornmeal made from corn that has been treated with lye or other alkaline solution to remove the hull and germ. This process, known as nixtamalization, makes the corn more digestible and nutritious and has been practiced by indigenous people for thousands of years. Finely ground masa harina is also used to make corn tortillas, and more coarsely ground masa harina is used to make tamales. Masa harina is also produced commercially in dried form and must be reconstituted with water before use, but homemade masa harina is delicious and not very difficult to make. Pupusas are similar to Mexican tortillas, except that they are slightly thicker and they are stuffed with a filling before they are cooked on the griddle. Typical fillings include cheese, beans, and ground pork (chicharrón).
Gorditas Are a Mexican Specialty
Gorditas resemble arepas, but like pupusas, they are made with masa harina. These corn cakes are deep fried until they are golden and crispy (but they can also be cooked on a griddle or comal). Gorditas puff up when fried in oil, forming an air pocket somewhat like pita bread. The word gordita means "little and fat," and they are so named because once they are cooked, they are split open and stuffed with cheese, onions, beef or pork, and/or chile peppers, and served with salsa.