Since I spend a lot of time cooking, I get attached to certain cooking implements. Has that happened to you? If you love to make cakes or bread, perhaps you have a special relationship with your mixer and oven. Or perhaps you can’t live without your backyard barbecue grill or that wine paraphernalia you’ve carefully collected over the years.
When you move abroad, though, those culinary affections can vary. Living in Latin America, my container of corn flour, which I reach for daily, is like an old friend. Perhaps you have a favorite yerba mate brewer. Or that perfect pan to fry plantain.
For me, there’s a special place in my kitchen and my heart for my budare.
What is a budare?
A budare is a metal griddle, round and flat and nearly without edges. The only handle is a little metal loop on one side.
I got my first lesson in what a budare is in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela. At the local market I saw them hanging in the stalls that sold household items. They mesmerized me; a round metal slab, they shined silver and came in sizes from small to supersized.
In Venezuela and Colombia, the household budare is the highly revered arepa maker. In the land of arepas, where in some areas no meal is served without the little round corn patty, the budare is ever-present. The shiny metal gets blackened and twisted through many years of use, which only makes it more loveable. In many parts of Latin America, this kind of griddle is your companion in the kitchen.
Learning to use a budare
That shiny silver of my new budare looked pretty, but everything I put on that virgin surface stuck with the tenacity of a barnacle. In time the silver gave way to black and my arepas seemed to glide over the surface. Twenty years later, my budare looks like the ones you’ll see in any other house in Colombia or Venezuela; blackened, bent and well-loved.
I don’t use it just for arepas, of course. I make pancakes on it, and I’ve even made pizza on it. Those delicious corn pancakes (arepa de choclo in Colombia and cachapas in Venezuela) don’t taste the same if they’re made any other way. I’ll use it as a base when I want something to cook slower – I put the pot on top of the budare, and it protects the contents of the pot from burning (think about your budare the next time you want to melt chocolate on the stovetop).
Friendship and budares
In the two decades I’ve been in Latin America, I’ve huddled over budares with many women in many kitchens. Maribel, a young dark-haired Venezuelan woman, taught me the ‘recipe’ to make arepas. The problem is that there is no recipe for arepas, since children learn how to make them with their mothers at a young age. The incomplete directions on the arepa flour bag bewildered me, but Maribel helped me through the process. On a typically cool morning in the Andes Mountains we stood over my friend’s black budare and proudly watched my round creation turn mottled brown.
Friends in rural Trujillo taught me to make the paper-thin arepas that are common there. They make those thin arepas the diameter of small dinner plates, patting them out by hand on the countertop. Those women were experts in their art, slapping around corn flour quickly whereas I struggled to create just one imperfect patty. They showed me how to lovingly place the arepas over a mesh grating set over the stovetop flame, and to recognize when the exterior had that crunchy layer that signaled they were ready.
I broke in my first budare with the help of Maria Elena. I lived with her and her family for a while, and the mornings were my favorite time of the day. She always swung the doors and windows wide open to let in the sound of birds happy in their dawn routine. With their happy chatter in our ears, she would patiently help me make a round arepa, and explained how long I had to leave it on the budare before flipping it, and she taught me the exact sound a cooked arepa should make when thumped lightly. She would lean her head to one side, listening as she cradled the arepa in a kitchen towel, waiting for its secrets that only she could hear.
In one village I lived in, I would at times hear my name called out as I walked on the road. It would be Betty, an older neighbor who would run out of her house as I passed by. Over the wobbly gate made of chicken wire and random pieces of wood, she would press a baggie of fresh corn into my hands, corn that she had laboriously ground by hand in her manual grinder.
“Make arepas for your husband,” she would urge me.
How I miss the sizzle of that corn mixture on the dark budare, the smell of the sweet corn browning. But above all, I miss the love in the eyes of my friend as she handed me, in a little baggie, centuries of tradition that she had learned from her grandmother.
The secret behind my budare
What it comes down to is love. Food is love, and all kitchen utensils that we use to cook our meals are connected to that love. The kitchen can bring members of the family together. It can take them away from the worries of work or the stress of studies to concentrate on one of the most pleasant tasks of the day; combining the flavors, textures, and aromas of the foods that we were created to enjoy. In that way we pass down our traditions, our likes and dislikes that make up who we are.
The care of the cook, and the utensils that he or she uses, are the means to that end. They should have a special place in our hearts. My budare has that special place, a place of honor in my kitchen and in my memory.