DIALOGUE: Irena Stein

5 min Article Healthy Eating
The restaurateur and author on how the gluten-free arepa is at the centre of Venezuelan life, and how a smile and laugh can contribute to wellbeing.
DIALOGUE: Irena Stein

Irena Stein, restaurateur, humanitarian, photographer, and author of the cookbook "Arepa," has brought a blend of culture and culinary expertise to the heart of Maryland. Originally from Venezuela, Irena's journey to America led her to Stanford University, where she graduated with a master’s degree in cultural anthropology.

Drawing inspiration from her immigrant background and a deep-rooted passion for art, food, community, and environmentalism, Stein embarked on a mission to create a culinary experience that transcends borders and nurtures the soul. Through her first restaurant, Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, Stein skillfully combines traditional Venezuelan flavors with modern techniques, crafting exquisite dishes that pay homage to her heritage while embracing local ingredients and influences.

The arepa is energy dense complex carbohydrate. Since it is made from ground corn flour, it is gluten-free and hence suitable for those who have gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. The wholegrain corn flour used in arepas have a good amount of dietary fiber that can aid digestion and support good gut health. It also contains small amounts of B-vitamins such as niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin. Healthy fillings with fresh whole foods like beans, avocado, and veggies can make the arepa a part of a balanced diet. Serving it with a side salad is also a great way to improve the nutritional value.  

Through the recipes in "Arepa," Stein not only showcases the rich heritage of Venezuelan bread but also invites readers on an immersive culinary adventure, offering a gateway to discover the flavors, traditions, and stories behind each recipe.

Roundglass Food: How does the arepa lend itself to culinary wellbeing for Venezuelans?

Irena Stein: The arepa is at the core of Venezuelan daily life. It is the symbol of our food and culture and is attached to Venezuelan culture on a very deep level. During the first years of the Maduro regime, the situation was so bad that the precooked corn flour (Harina P.A.N.) that we all use for making arepas was unavailable. This led to a collective depression and awareness of the disastrous economy. This diaspora led to a mass migration that continues to this day. However, now that Harina P.A.N. is available around the world, including in Venezuela, Venezuelans are now able to eat arepas again, not only in their home country but wherever they are in the world.

RG: What is the ancestral wisdom associated with the arepa that you find most inspiring?

IS: The universal belief that sharing bread unites the family and community.

RG: What are the three nutritional aspects about arepa we should know?

IS: The pre-cooked whole grain corn flour (the P.A.N. brand) has protein and fiber and is gluten-free! When making the dough, you can add chia or flax seeds for an even healthier arepa. The beauty of it all is that you can stuff the arepa with any type of food and adapt it to any diet.

RG: With migration across the globe diets in developing nations are changing, often adopting unhealthy fast-food habits eschewing culinary traditions. How have Venezuelans tackled this?

IS: If there is a stove around, and a bag of Harina P.A.N., Venezuelans will make arepas and eat them any time of the day or night and with any kind of food.

There has been a tremendous rise of poverty and lack of food in the last 10-15 years in Venezuela, and this has forced more than 7 million people to leave their country. It is worth noting that since this diaspora and exodus that truly started in 2013, migrants have brought the arepa to all corners of the world where they have established a new home. Harina P.A.N. is now available in more than 90 countries around the world.

By taking the arepa with them, they are able to take their identity with them. As Laureano Márquez, the journalist, humorist, actor, and writer from Caracas has written, “For Venezuelans, it’s kind of hard to talk about the arepa; it’s pretty difficult, almost like talking about our own mother. You never know where to start with so many things to say and remember. Because the arepa, like our own mother, is always there for us. Our folklore says that every Venezuelan child is 'born with an arepa under their arm.' I think it’s a beautiful affirmation about the happy existence that every person that comes to the world deserves.”

The arepa is a symbol of Venezuelan culinary identity. (Pic courtesy: Arepa)

RG: What are the lessons on food sustainability and zero waste food management you have learnt from traditional societies that hold good globally?


• Use the meat and bones of the entire animal.

• Use all leftovers to create meals. (These are perfect to stuff an arepa)

• Only buy the food you will use.

• Inventory and use everything you have in the freezer and pantry before you go shopping at the supermarket.

RG: What are the commitments restaurant industry leaders can make to bring flavor, health, and nutrition to food?


• Flavors: Discover and utilize the infinite spices and herbs that are available to us.

• Health: A commitment to purchase from sustainable sources, especially animal protein. Decrease beef on menus as much as possible to help curb climate change. And smile and laugh as much as possible for the best health!

• Nutrition: Enhance the produce we work with at all times. Seduce guests into eating a balanced diet with common sense.

RG: What is your enduring food memory while growing up?

IS: My grandmother had two fridges. One held only desserts. They were a collection of each grandchild’s favorite. When we would visit, we would quickly hug her and go straight to that fridge. We were never disappointed.

RG: What’s an herb (or elixir, or fruit, or tea) that you associate with healing?

IS: The Llantén herb. Especially excellent for UTIs; it is also an anti-inflammatory and more.

RG: What is a heritage cookware from that you possess and can’t part with? What is it associated with?

IS: Mainly serving platters from my grandmother and mother. I will give them to my daughter someday, and they will be passed on to the next generation. Also, I inherited the silver soup ladle of my immediate family.

DIALOGUE is an ongoing series of conversations about food & wellbeing.

The Benefits

  • It’s a gluten-free alternative to bread
  • Corn arepas contain magnesium and antioxidants
  • It is high in fiber and low in fat

About the Teacher

Sudha G Tilak

Sudha G Tilak

Sudha G Tilak is a journalist who has reported from India, Sri Lanka and the UK. She is based out of Gurgaon and is a writer, translator, editor of books on food and travel, and a vegetarian. She is committed to building culinary connections and initiating healthy conversations around the history and traditional wisdom around food.
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