I talked to a NYC-based Venezuelan restaurant owner about the bizarre reality of sourcing Venezuelan ingredients in America as natives struggle to find food on grocery store shelves in the midst of the ongoing protests.
If having one of the highest murder rates in the world, inflation near 57 percent, and startling repression through the use of colectivos—a violent grassroots organization supported by the government—seem like solid reasons for taking to the streets, then you're already in solidarity with Venezuela's uprising.
What began as peaceful student marches has scaled to include tens of thousands of protesters, clashes with the police, makeshift weapons, and aggressive political agendas. The violence has made some cityscapes look like total war zones.
But beyond the volatile protests at hand, a recent study suggested that rising food prices and shortages are linked global unrest.
Imagine a massive food company like Coca-Cola abandoning its US headquarters for fear of a government takeover. When Hugo Chavez took power of Venezuela in 1999, that's exactly what happened to many of the country's biggest food producers. Companies like P.A.N. cornmeal, used for making arepas, and the classic bubble gum flavored soda Frescolita—iconic staples of street carts and Venezuelan dinner tables—were forced to move overseas or become victims of the Chavista ideal.Nowadays, the classic Venezuelan meal is made up of all imported goods: arepas and coconut wafers from Colombia and tropical punch soda made in Miami. Inflation has made it impossible for Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro, to keep prices food prices down and actual food on the shelves.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan transplants like NYC-based restaurant owner, Jonathan Hernandez, are utilizing iconic Venezuelan pantry items that natives living in the country cannot obtain.
Jonathan's restaurant, Patacon Pisao, located in Elmhurst, Queens, is one of the best representations of Venezuelan street food—arguably the most authentic in NYC—outside of Venezuela. I recently met with Jonathan, who runs the business with his mother, to discuss Venezuelan food traditions and how they are being affected by the current political situation.
"You can find places like this all around Venezuela," he told me. "Small little joints, in and out. These are the most traditional kinds of spots you see."
Patacon Pisao is known for its namesake sandwich—the patacon—that uses two large plantains, double deep-fried and flattened, instead of bread. The sandwich is originally from Maracaibo, a large city with a beach vibe on the northwestern coast.
"These are the basic ones…you choose a protein and it comes with fried cheese, lettuce, tomato, and wasakaka sauce, which is a mayonnaise and avocado-based cream." He's also quick to mention that the patacon might be the perfect drinking food, and he's probably right.
He tells me that he doesn't feel like there's a cohesive community of Venezuelan immigrants in New York, but the natives he does know tend to hail from Caracas. When his family emigrated to the US, "being from Maracaibo, we thought we were the only Venezuelans here. We weren't opening up a Venezuelan joint to cater to Venezuelans."
Jonathan's mother began their business in a small food truck nine years in Washington Heights. "She did her research. There's a big clientele of Dominicans up there, but they never had a sandwich like this. Dominicans love plantains like Chinese love rice. It keeps them functioning, but they never had it in that format—as the bread," he said.
"Some Venezuelans come in here and are like, 'This is not Venezuelan food,'" he says. 'Well you're from Caracas,' he tells them, 'and you've never had the patacon in Maracaibo. You go to Maracaibo and you see them on every corner.'
But when I asked if the restaurant's plantains are imported from Venezuela, he laughed. He told me that agriculture is largely nonexistent now. "[Chavez] basically told the farmers to stop farming." He elaborated, explaining that, "Everything is imported and we export gas and oil basically for free to all these countries, so they can give us food. But it's not really happening."
Much of the shortages in Venezuela stem from a series of reforms passed by Chavez over the past decade, which seized land from established farmers and "returned" it to the poor. The aim was to make Venezuela self-sufficient on food, but it hasn't panned out because the poor (in this case) were people from the city with no knowledge of farming techniques or the capital needed to get crops off the ground. Last year, Maduro began talks with China in an attempt to turn around the failing farm policies by trading Venezuelan land for training and investment, but the plan has yet to be finalized.
For now, the situation is only getting worse. Lines outside grocery stores go on for so long that people have started marking their arms in numerical order to ensure they aren't cut. Jonathan told me that his relatives who continue to live in Venezuela eat "rice, beans, whatever. People can get their hands on stuff, but it's very limited. Arepas are something you ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and now people can only eat it once a week."
The irony of running a successful restaurant in the US that uses traditional Venezuelan ingredients as Venezuelans struggle to obtain those same ingredients within the country isn't lost on Jonathan. "Food is a huge part of what Venezuela is about," he said. "A lot of my older family members feel it. They're always watching the news, always hoping. It's tough."