A study in home comforts: the curious link between Venezuelan immigration & black bean consumption
Sanna Hirvonen reports on increasing black bean consumption in Colombia and Peru caused by Venezuelan immigration and what this says about the importance of food as identity.
Over the past decade, the Venezuelan economy declined to such an extent that life at home became unbearable for its citizens. Consequently, millions of Venezuelans decided to leave the country and settle elsewhere, with Colombia and Peru as the primary destinations. Although they may have left their home country behind for now, there are some home comforts they brought with them. Faced with new, unfamiliar surroundings, it is through food that they stay connected to their roots. The evidence? Rapidly rising levels of black bean consumption in the areas with the most Venezuelan immigrants.
Ever since the presidency of Hugo Chávez, from 1998 until his death in 2013, the Venezuelan economy had been declining. It finally collapsed after the current president, Nicolás Maduro, succeeded Chávez, causing a serious crisis. From 2014, Venezuelans began leaving the country in droves, driven out by hyperinflation, high rates of murder and violence, a lack of jobs and shortages of food, water, medicine and petrol.
According to the UN Refugee Agency's 2021 report, 6.1 million Venezuelans have left the country since the crisis began, making it the second largest external displacement of people after the Syrian refugee crisis. Most of them travel to nearby South American countries, with Colombia, Peru and Chile as the main destinations. Colombia currently has around 1.7 million Venezuelans while Peru comes second with 1.3 million. Some Southern European countries have sizeable numbers as well, most importantly Spain, Italy and Portugal.
This mass movement of people has had a notable impact in the consumption of black beans in countries where large numbers of Venezuelans have settled. As reported in a previous Pulse Pod interview, Benjamin Perez of Comercializadora Gran Colmado estimates that Colombian black bean consumption has almost tripled due to Venezuelan immigration: "We as a company used to bring around 100 tons of black beans into the country every year, but right now we bring around 250-300 tons." The rising demand for black beans was also noticed by Jorge Fernandez Gil, General Manager of Agro Fergi in Peru, who estimates that the influx of Venezuelans has caused an increase of around 2-3% in black bean imports to Peru.
The same phenomenon can be observed in other countries. Vanesa Tejero Leon, the CEO of Skane Group says that there has been an increase in black bean imports in countries with more Venezuelan immigrants, including Spain, Italy, and Portugal. One of their clients is La Cochura in Spain, who imported 200 tons in 2015 compared to 450-500 tons of black beans in 2020-2021.
I eat, therefore I am
The food historian Massimo Montanari states the importance of food for one's identity as follows: "Like spoken language, the food system contains and conveys the culture of its practitioner; it is the repository of traditions and of collective identity. It is therefore an extraordinary vehicle of self-representation and of cultural exchange—a means of establishing identity".
What and how we eat forms an essential part of our identity. Our days are scheduled around meals, and they are often the most important occasions to spend time with family and friends. Our cultures and traditions are passed along in learning how to prepare meals and in our ways of eating and spending time around food. Our identities are shaped by the culinary cultures we adopt. For example, one might associate strongly with eating a Mediterranean diet but also advocate veganism, or combine one's national cuisine with elements from one's new adopted country.
When we immigrate to a new country, we are faced with two conflicting needs: to integrate into our new home while at the same time preserving our own cultural identity. An easy way to do this is to maintain our typical diet, partly because it is routine; partly because it is familiar. Black beans, known as caraotas negras in the country, are a staple in the Venezuelan diet. They are commonly eaten with arepas, small patties made of maize dough, as snacks or to accompany meals. Black beans are also an essential ingredient in the national dish pabellón criollo, which consists of white rice, black beans and fried plantains with shredded beef cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and bell peppers.
Tejero Leon's experience regarding the impact of Venezuelan immigration on the pulses trade goes beyond her professional role, as she herself is a Venezuelan who lives in the Netherlands. As Tejero Leon says of the importance of food as identity, "You are not Venezuelan if you don't eat arepa."
The culinary cultures and eating habits of groups of immigrants often leave a mark on the country they settle in, which is also confirmed by Tejero Leon's personal experiences. She cooks Venezuelan food for her Dutch friends, who like arepas so much that they have started to cook them as well. Regarding the availability of Venezuelan ingredients, she remarks that whereas both black beans and the Harina PAN cornmeal used for arepas are widely available in the Netherlands, for other products she has to rely on Curaçaoan shops, which are common there.
It’s all about fusion
The fusion of immigrant dishes with local cuisine is often the story behind famous "national" dishes such as kibis, originally Lebanese meatballs that are now considered a traditional Yucatecan dish in Mexico, tempura in Japan that was inherited from the Portuguese, and Chicken Tikka Masala which is widely considered to be the UK's national dish and was created by South Asian immigrants in the UK. While Venezuelan dishes are still relatively unknown outside of Venezuela, the current increase in black bean consumption in countries where they are not commonly consumed points to the possibility of further integration of Venezuelan cuisine abroad.
Tejero Leon is cautiously optimistic about Venezuela's future, and notes that the situation has already somewhat improved. The economy has started growing again, inflation is currently at its lowest point for almost a decade, and the rising oil prices mean more revenue for the country. According to a Bloomberg report, the GDP is forecasted to grow 8.3% in 2022, compared to 1.9% the previous year, following seven years of recession. The growth could further increase if the US lifts its economic sanctions and allows US companies to invest, which could boost oil production.
Perhaps one of the most lasting and positive consequences of Venezuela's crisis will be the legacy of food the Venezuelan immigrants will have created outside of their home country. Venezuela used to receive huge numbers of immigrants who contributed to its traditional cuisine but now the process has been reversed. Whereas Tejero Leon's Spanish grandfather, who immigrated to Venezuela, brought with him the tradition of making paella, now Venezuelans are bringing arepas and pabellón criollo to their adopted countries. As Tejero Leon states, "Venezuela is so much more than problems", and anyone who has tried Venezuelan food knows that to be the case.