By Marisa Romano

Empanadas are the crescent-shaped fried or baked pastries filled with a variety of savoury or sweet stuffing, typical of Latin America. The word literally means “wrapped in bread.”

Food historians place their origin in Galicia, the northwest corner of Spain. Empanadas eaten in Galicia – empanadas gallegas – are shaped like large pies filled with ingredients like tuna, sardines, minced pork or vegetables. The original dish was brought to South America by the Spaniards who colonized most of that continent. In time, the recipe was reworked and empanadas took the shape of pockets with the dough wrapped around the filling. Each region developed its own take by adding local flavours.

Empanada-like foods are found all over the world. Italian calzone, British pasty, Indian samosa and Chinese bao are just a few examples. I like all morsels wrapped in bread, but my favourite pick-me-up for “blah” COVID days are the empanadas from Café Morala. They are the creation of owner Miriam Rangel. Inside the baked shell – shaped like the empanadas found on the streets of Buenos Aires – Rangel hides combinations of ingredients inspired by international cuisine.

A quaint hub located at 734 Bank Street, Café Morala was the first specialty coffee shop in the Glebe. It opened its doors in 1993 as Morala Specialty Coffee. Inside, customers could sip freshly ground and brewed cups of coffee, enjoy Italian-style ice cream and buy high-end coffee equipment.

The business changed hands in 2002 when the Mortazari family sold it to two of its customers, Glebites Henry Assad and Miriam Rangel. In a farewell to his patrons published in the Glebe Report, Hamid Mortazari wrote that the new owners “will keep the shop as well as the service the same, and we hope that you will all be as generous to them as you were to us.” The Mortazari family now owns Morala Trading Co. on Kent Street.

I sat with Rangel to reminisce about the transformation that made Café Morala the community hub that it is today.

“At the beginning, it was a disaster,” recalls Rangel. The old fridge was the first thing to go, and ice-cream cones were never sold again. The business was sitting on coffee equipment that was not selling and clogged the small space – it was eventually unloaded at a garage sale.

One year into the venture, Rangel started making sandwiches and salads, using fresh ingredients “including fun twists like avocado and quality breads.” Soups and scones were added to the menu shortly after. Later, the memorable Belgian waffles appeared on the weekend menu. Then the café started offering empanadas.

The interior of the small space also underwent a gradual transformation. Do you remember the large mural? “I did not really like it,” confesses Rangel with a hint of embarrassment.

After the major makeover that started in 2006, the busy coffee shop became brighter and cleaner looking with extra space for a table close to the window. The blue tiles added the Mexican flair from Rangel’s heritage and the large wall – freed from the bright, eye-popping mural – became the showcase for creations of Glebe’s artists.

“I am so grateful for the support of the community,” says Rangel. She is also grateful to Henry Assad, who left the coffee shop in her hands long ago and ventured into his own coffee business but is always ready to assist, and to Noel, the welcoming smile behind the counter who for nine years has served customers when Rangel is busy baking sweet treats and empanadas in the kitchen.

Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.

Café Morala’s empanada with ensalada fresca, guaranteed to raise your spirits!   Photo: Claudia Belair

Miriam’s Ensalada Fresca
the perfect match for her signature empanadas

Ensalada:

1 head lettuce of your choice
1 cup arugula
1 small cucumber diced
1 red pepper diced
2 small beets baked or boiled and diced (optional)
1 mango pitted and diced
1 avocado pitted and diced
Berries of your choice
Roasted almonds chopped

Assemble ensalada fresca in layers starting with a bed of lettuce of your choice and arugula.
Keep adding ingredients alternating colors and finishing with chopped roasted almonds.

Dressing:

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup sunflower oil
3 tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves chopped in half
1 juice of lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Chop the garlic in half and let it sit in the oil for an hour or more before adding the rest of the ingredients. Let the flavours fuse for 20 minutes before serving.

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