Pabellón Criollo, our Christmas dinner

You couldn’t get pabellón criollo at Hotel Maracay. But the food stands outside the general hospital served this national plate of Venezuela. The New York pizza place in Bejuma made it just for us when we said we would go elsewhere to look for it. We spent summers and many other times from 1988 to 1999 doing field work on the wonderful social wasps of Venezuela, and pabellón was our favorite besides the outstanding seafood. Somehow we brought it home, and it became the meal of choice on Christmas day, for us and the rest of the family. We also made a chicken version for the squeamish.

I don’t know if your family would like this for Christmas, but it’s wonderful, simple food. The rice is white rice, cooked in a rice cooker. The black beans are unadorned, though I would have thrown in some epazote if I had it – should have checked the garden. The plantains should be ripe, black on the outside. Then simply quarter them lengthwise and fry them in a little oil. They’ll be sweet and delicious.

For carne mechada I used to buy skirt steak or brisket, pressure cook, then pull the meat from the fat. Now I just buy stew meat, pressure cook that for half an hour, pull the beef into strings, and add the sofrito, and some broth from cooking the meat. The sofrito is 4 onions, 6 tomatoes, 2 red bell peppers, a head of garlic, a tablespoon of cumin for about 6 pounds of meat. Chop and saute in olive oil, then mix with the meat. The sad part of this dish is it should really have aji dulce in it. This is a delicious chile that is derived from an habanero, but has no heat. It has that great habanero flavor though. I’ve never succeeded in either buying or growing these chiles here.

The arepas are made with harina pan, a precooked white corn meal. I use 2 cups water to every cup of harina pan, and about half a teaspoon of water. Mix the harina pan into the lukewarm water, stirring with your fingers. Let sit 10 minutes, knead some, though there is no gluten, then form into arepas, about the size and shape of hamburger patties. Cook on an oiled or unoiled skillet, then put in the oven 20 minutes. Or not, if you have a broken oven like me.

Serve the arepas with nata, a soured cream. We find the El Salvadoran sour cream to be the closest.

Everything can be cooked in advance and reheated which is a good thing because we had way too much food even though we were 14!


Pabellón Criollo, the Venezuelan national dish, and ours for Christmas dinner, rice, black beans, carne mechada, machos fritos, arepas.


Only this year we added some carrot-free Salvadoran curtido, and it was great.


Pick the blackest plantains, because they should be ripe.

201012260713.jpg Quarter them lengthwise, and sauté them in corn oil.
201012260713.jpg For the sofrito, tomatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, red peppers, jalapeños since we don’t have aji dulce.

201012260714.jpg The sofrito of onion, garlic, tomato, red pepper, jalapeño, salt and cumin for the meat.


Shred the pressure-cooked meat with your fingers.

201012260715.jpg The cooked arepas.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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