These are the 7 essential Venezuelan foods everyone should know

Venezuelan food
Andy Kryza

Venezuelan politics have been dominating the news lately, but Venezuelan foods have also been dominating our restaurants and food carts with increasing frequency. And food is way better than politics (even pork barrel politics are bland). With influences ranging from Caribbean to African and European and varying state-by-state, Venezuelan cuisine has a focus on taking simple, readily available ingredients like corn, plantains, and meats and transforming them into some of the most unique and delicious flavors out there.

With a hunger for arepas and the desire to learn more, we surveyed the abuelitas at a handful of Portland Venezuelan spots for this beginner's guide to seven essential Venezuelan classics.

Plantains
Andy Kryza

Fried Plantains
What they are: Those banana-looking fruits that are not at all bananas, cut into bacon-like strips or smashed into little cakes, then fried.
What's the deal: Known as "tajadas", plantains are sometimes sweet and sometimes salty, and they serve as the perfect substitute for fries. They can be floppy and bacony, or smashed up into crispy, cake-like blobs. Either way, if you don't see plantains, you're probably not at a real Venezuelan spot. 

Arepas
Rebecca Feder

Arepas
What they are:
A crispy, corn-based cross between flatbread and cake that's either baked or fried and used as a base for sandwiches.
What's the deal: Basically Venezuela's culinary cultural attache to the US, arepas have taken our food carts, restaurants, and hearts by storm. They're eaten all day, whether they're stuffed with eggs for our favorite breakfast or piled high with lengua de res (tongue) or other taco-style fillings at night. And with chefs around the US taking an increasing shine to fancying them up, the arepa permutations are endless. They're portable, they're diverse, and they're kind of the best.

Asado Negro
Andy Kryza

Asado Negro
What it is:
Slow-roasted beef with a tangy/sweet glaze.
What's the deal: Like a spicier, sweeter Latin cousin of Mom's roast beef -- it's probably a better dancer, too -- "black roast" is a standard comfort food, and like all the best comfort foods, the recipe will change from restaurant to restaurant and family to family. The constant, though, is a tender cut of roasted beef with a sweet glaze (usually sugar or wine) that's cut with a little vinegar, peppers, and spices.

Pisca Andina
Recetas Venezolanas

Pisca Andina
What it is:
A typically chicken broth-based potato soup that often incorporates cheese, as all amazing things do.
What's the deal: Yet another reason that Venezuelan breakfast is the bomb: This soup is served up at dawn (sunset's cool too, though). A staple of the country's Andean region -- which also gave us those killer chocolate mints! -- the soup's highly nutritious, most often made with chicken broth and hearty potatoes, and sometimes includes cheese as a thickening agent. Eggs are also sometimes incorporated to make it a fuller meal, just in case you need them to remind you that it's morning.

Pebellon Criollo
Andy Kryza

Pabellon criollo
What it is:
Pssht... it's only the national dish of Venezuela (sorry, arepas), consisting of beans, rice, plantains, and a spicy shredded beef.
What's the deal: Often plated to resemble the nation's flag, it's the most patriotic dish this side of the American firecracker popsicle. Steak (usually flank) gets slow-cooked and pulled apart into strands, then plopped on a plate with white rice and black beans, with plantains set on up around the perimeter to symbolically keep the food from falling off the plate. As with the Pisca Andina, you can also order it with an egg on top by asking for it "a caballo", which translates to "on horseback".

Mandoca
Wikimedia/DamianFinol

Mandoca
What it is: A fried cornmeal fritter shaped like a ring and served as a snack and -- wait for it -- as a breakfast staple.
What's the deal: Reason 4,308 that Venezuelan breakfast is incredible: The mandoca is like something that you'd eat at the state fair, except here it's just a snack or morning pick-me-up. Most common in the state of Zulia -- which has a startling lack of Tilt-o-Whirls -- it's served piping hot with cheese and/or butter.

Hallaca
Flickr/Javier Lastras

Hallaca
What it is:
A traditional Christmas treat consisting of meats, veggies, and cornmeal wrapped up in a banana leaf.
What's the deal: If tamales and Hawaiian laulau had a baby on Christmas, it'd be hallaca, which consists of a bunch of meats -- pork and beef, usually -- plus capers and olives coated in cornmeal, then wrapped up in a plantain leaf and cooked. When it's ready, it's a much more satisfying present to open than a Tickle Me Elmo, mainly because it doesn't taste like felt and plastic.

Thrillist National Eat/Drink Senior Editor Andy Kryza has never been to Venezuela, but once owned a vuvuzela... until it was violently taken away from him by the commissioner of an intramural softball league. Follow his droning, hypnotic voice via @apkryza.