I had the pleasure of meeting Carolina Abolio, the founder of Miss Arepita / Arepa Mobile, when she recently catered a meal for several KQED Science producers. After sampling the array of delicious arepas she prepared for the staff, I wanted to know more about her burgeoning business and these savory Venezuelan flatbreads.
"You really can’t go too far in Venezuela without running into an arepa," said Abolio via email. "They are sold at areperas everywhere throughout the country and given the countless ways it can be prepared, there is really an arepa for everyone."
"The arepa is made of maize flour, grown by the natives in small indigenous villages. It was made from moistened maize, ground between stones to produce pliable dough. Later they were formed into discs and heated to a high temperature on earthenware tiles called "aripos," hence the name. Arepas have always been the traditional breakfast food for most Venezuelan families. They are our "daily bread," as they replace almost completely the use of wheat bread.
Our arepas are handmade, gluten-free, grilled pockets of corn meal that are crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. Then they're stuffed with cooked meats, cheeses or sautéed locally grown veggies."
While Abolio doesn't have a professional background in the culinary arts -- she obtained a degree in civil engineering -- "I learned with my family how food created strong bridges between communities. Growing up in Venezuela, in an Italian home, good food was always the central part of our tradition. Everything revolved around the kitchen table which always had warm and delicious treats to offer to everyone who rang the doorbell.
When I moved to Boston, I realized how handy all those days cooking with my sister Judith and listening to the stories about our family helped me on my homesick days to reproduce those flavors and smells that I missed so much. In the last 8 years, that passion for collecting, reproducing and sharing those traditional flavors and the stories attached to those flavors from my hometown have become stronger."
Based in the city of Oakland, Abolio was drawn there as "it's listed among the top cities in the country for sustainability practice. The food scene is booming because of those food artisans and creators that are moving here from all over the word."
She's also supported by Phat Beets Produce, "a food justice collective. The collective was started in North Oakland in 2007 as a guerrilla produce stand in a local park. It was started as a means to close the gap between small farmers of color that lack market outlets and urban communities that lack access to healthy, affordable and culturally-appropriate food.
I prepare the arepas in a commercial kitchen subsidized by Phat Beets Produce. The goal of their incubator kitchen program is to train and support Oakland residents to become successful entrepreneurs in food ventures."
Abolio then sells her food at "this little neighborhood farmers' market [on Grace and Lowell Streets]. It's a place for neighbors to be neighborly on Saturday mornings until 2pm. It's not big, but it rules. We also offer lunch delivery to your office or home for 20 people or more. We call it "La Lonchera" and it features our traditional arepas prepared on site."
Here's a run down of Miss Arepita's offerings, as described by Abolio:
Pabellon: "A traditional dish from Venezuela that includes plantains, meat, beans and rice served on a plate. At some point, the rice was traded for white cheese and was placed inside an arepa."
Pata Pata: "Black beans, plantains and white cheese. This arepa was created in honor of Miriam Makeba, famous for the song "Pata Pata."
Reina Pepiada: "Chicken salad with avocado. When Venezuela won the first “Miss World,” this arepa was created in her honor. The recipe that I use has a twist that I borrowed from my cousin Jenny. This recipe inspires the taste of Christmas year-round."
Veggie Calypso: "My own recipe. We make it using seasonal veggies from the farmers' market. It changes weekly."
Carne Mechada: "Shredded beef in a red sauce with plantains."
"We also prepared our own salsas, such as guasacaca (a green sauce that's great for drizzling over arepas and is our own recipe) and salsa picante, a hot sauce."
"Papelón con limón is a refreshing Venezuelan beverage, made with papelón (raw, hardened sugar cane juice), water and usually lime or lemon juice."
What's next for Miss Arepita? "At the moment, [our plan for a food] truck is still in the 'blueprints' stage. My goal in the next couple of years is to introduce the arepa culture to our East Bay community one arepa at a time and the truck will follow."
Find out more about Miss Arepita / Arepita Mobile at her Facebook page.