CARACAS, Venezuela — On a quiet side street of Caracas' Cementerio neighborhood, not far from the city's towering glass office buildings and high-rise apartments, Francisco Cordoba Martinez leans his old wooden chair against the wall, picks up a giant knife and takes a deep breath. Martinez is taking a break from shucking corn before the next wave of customers arrives at Luncheria Los Felipes in search of Martinez's trademark dish: cachapas.
These thin, slightly sweet corn pancakes are a staple of Venezuelan life. Made from tender corn, a little sugar, a pinch of salt, a little milk or water and occasionally an egg, this simple dish is a favorite among rich and poor alike. And that makes Martinez's brightly painted restaurant, which barely seats 20, a magnet for those in search of one of the oldest and most basic of Venezuela's gastronomic legacies.
"Right here is the secret to making a good cachapa," says Martinez, as he runs his hands across a large pot full of pale yellow kernels. "The corn can't be too hard or too tender, and it should be as fresh as possible."
If Martinez's advice sounds downright simple, it is, but so is the dish, which dates to this Caribbean country's earliest residents, the Yanomamo, Parias and Arawaks.
Corn has always been a staple among these and many other groups because it is easy to grow. It is served in various forms across the continent--from Mexico's tortilla and tamale to Colombia's envueltos (similar to Mexico's corn tamale)--and in Venezuela it takes the form of the pancakes cachapa and arepa.
Back then sugar and salt weren't part of the recipe, but the fundamentals of making a good cachapa remain much the same today as they always have, says Armando Scannone, a food historian in Venezuela and author of "Mi Cocina," a definitive cookbook of traditional Venezuelan cuisine.
"If you look at the way it's sometimes still prepared, wrapped in a corn husk and then boiled or cooked over a hot griddle, you can see how it was probably made by the Indians," Scannone says.
Modern day cachapas are a bit more complicated. Although the ingredient list remains short (corn, sugar, salt and water or milk), these once-plain pancakes are now dressed up with an assortment of toppings ranging from a mild soft cheese known as queso de mano to black beans, stewed meats and leeks. But it's still the delicate taste of the corn pancake that is paramount in making a proper cachapa.
"You have to know how to work the corn," Martinez says. "You have to know it and be true to what cachapas are about, because making them is a delicate business."
And it's attention to that ritual that helps cachaperias like Luncheria Los Felipes survive in a city where pasta is more popular than potatoes and French and Japanese restaurants serve the most customers.
For Martinez, that means getting up before 6 a.m. to start picking through bags of corn at Quinta Crespo, the city's largest open market. Then it's on to the restaurant, where the real work begins.
The corn is shucked, with the occasional ear being tossed aside if it is too yellow, until a large pot is filled with juicy kernels. Martinez cuts the corn from the cob and then grinds it until it yields a milky yellow pulp. Examining the ground corn, he slowly adds sugar, salt, milk and egg and the transformation begins.
At first it's imperceptible, but slowly his shoulders and wrists begin to move as if he is dancing salsa. "You need to have both proper taste and rhythm for this, because that can be as important as the ingredients themselves," he says, walking over to a large black griddle.
Martinez tests the surface, making sure it's sizzling hot, then carefully ladles out half a cup of the batter. It quickly starts to bubble, and the edges begin turning golden brown. That's when Martinez gently flips it, cooking the cachapa until the other side is equally browned. The entire process lasts only about four minutes, but what it yields is divine.
The cachapa is topped with a dollop of butter, and the first one of the day is set before a small altar of Santa Barbara, the shop's patron saint. "She gets the first one of the day, but the rest are for the customers," Martinez says.
Martinez settles down to make another pancake. "It's not hard, but you have to do every step just right or it doesn't taste the same," he says. That can mean a lot of fine-tuning and patience. As is true of many simple dishes, it's not just the ingredients but how they are combined that gives cachapas their distinctive flavor.
And that is what sets one cachapa apart from another. Add too much sugar and you may end up with a pancake only a sugar-addicted child would eat; don't add enough and the result is so bland no Venezuelan would take a second bite.