Meet the Empanadas of Latin America

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Your handy field guide to empanadas. Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

"Live rabbits hopped out of some of the large empanadas; birds fluttered from others." That's how food historian Rachel Laudan, in her book Cuisine and Empire, describes a feast eaten by Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City in 1538. Among the myriad dishes at the three-day feast were "empanadas of fish, fowl, and game."

If you've ever visited Argentina, ridden a bus in Bolivia, or made friends with a Venezuelan, you've probably tasted an empanada of some sort. But it would take a lifetime of non-stop empanada-eating to try all of the infinite combinations of doughs, fillings, and cooking methods that are so closely tied to the specific culture, flora, and fauna in each region of Latin America. To describe each and every one of these would monopolize your time for the next few weeks, so instead, this article will help you understand the wide world of empanadas, the styles that are typical in different regions, and how empanadas are woven into the fabric of each culture. While we weren't able to track down any live rabbit empanadas available today, we've got baby sharks, a sauce made from ants, and a hand-pie that shares key features with the beloved Shanghainese soup dumpling.

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Empanadas with Ají in Medellín, Colombia. Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Before we get too far: what do we mean by an empanada? At its simplest (which is very simple), an empanada is filling encased in starchy dough—the word empanada literally translates to "wrapped in bread" (which basically describes half the food eaten in the world). Even just sticking to those things actually called empanadas only limits the discussion a little bit. It does mean goodbye to Jamaican patties and Cornish pasties, tchau to Brazilian pasteles, adios to Dominican pastelitos and orevwa to Haitian pates. It leaves the xianbing and baos of China, calzones of Italy, and Hot Pockets of the United States for another time. But just looking at that list suggests how broad the spectrum of empanada-like foodstuffs is around the world.

Empanada with Marinated Pork, Onions, and Red Peppers
Galician-style. Photograph: Kevin Miyazaki

While empanadas are now more or less a form of hand pie, that's not exactly where they came from. The Galician empanada from northern Spain, forebear of the current empanada that's prevalent in Latin America, is a large two-crust pie baked in a round pie plate or rectangular dish. The yeasted dough exterior holds fillings that usually include bell peppers and onion along with a protein—commonly tuna or chicken. Sliced into individual squares, they start to look slightly more like the single-serving descendents spread throughout the New World, where early Spanish conquerors brought the dish.

Once it landed on the shores of Latin America, the empanada shrank to its current handheld size and adapted to local climates, evolving with every incoming colonizer. As it spread, dough variations lost the yeast, some morphing into a more pastry-style crust, cut with beef fat or butter (especially in the cattle-raising regions of Argentina), while others lost the wheat flour entirely: empanadas in Venezuela and Colombia are made with corn flour, and in Caribbean countries, yuca or plantain serves as the starch. What's inside divides empanada geography even further, with specific states often staking their claim to a specific style of beef filling (with or without olives, raisins, eggs, or peppers), while others focus on cheese or even sweets such as dulce de leche or guava. Finally, there is the greatest divider of empanada lovers of all: fried or baked?

No matter the stuffing or the style, the ubiquity and love for the empanada is not a difficult one to understand. Venezuelan food photographer and entrepreneur Valentina Vitols sums it up: An empanada is "cheap, easy to eat, and there's just nothing foo-foo about it." It's the food of the masses, easily transportable, and versatile—you can stuff an empanada with just about anything. Travelers in Latin America look back fondly on the empanada ladies, boarding buses and manning the streets with baskets full of fresh, still-warm empanadas, and ex-pats yearn for the ease of picking up pre-made, cook-at-home versions at a market. But which kind they dream of depends on where they were, as the empanada landscape of Latin America is as varied as the noodles of Asia.

Empanadas of the Cono Sur

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Photo: Clay Williams

Empanadas in Argentina use a dough that's somewhat similar to the Galician fore-panada, but from there things get crazy with the country's dizzying array of fillings. The prototypical Argentine hand-sized version is a simple wheat and fat (butter, lard, or beef fat) dough surrounding ground beef, onions, olives, and hard-boiled egg, baked in the oven. But empanadas in Argentina are like pizza is in the United States: available in a variety of crusts (baked or fried), with every imaginable filling (beyond from the basic beef, chicken, cheese, Caprese, corn-based humita, and mushroom are popular), and often delivered to your doorstep.

Baked empanadas tend to be more common, though that changes depending where you are in the country. In Tucumán, (home of the National Empanada Festival) the three specialty fillings of the region (beef, tripe, and chicken) are wrapped in dough, then cooked in beef fat in a clay oven. Empanadas from San Juan province include a whole (unpitted!) olive. In Córdoba, a little sugar is added to the filling.

Empanada shops announce the flavor of the empanada with a decoration on the seam (called the repulgue) or with a flourish of extra dough; each shape signifies a different filling, making it easy to pick out the empanada you'd like. Well, that's the theory: an empanada delivery often comes with diagrams of barely-discernable fold types identifying each empanada. Vegetarians be warned—break it open and check before you bite!

The empanada scene doesn't change much from Buenos Aires as you head north to Uruguay, but moving west, Chilean empanadas have slight regional variations. Along the coast you'll find seafood (mussels, the treasured pink razor clams, or shrimp) cooked into empanadas—with none of the Italian concern of mixing seafood and cheese. The most common meat version, called pino, isn't far from what you'd find in Argentina. The beef, egg, and olive combination is a bit juicier than the Argentine version, thanks to a higher ratio of onions cooked into the mix, and sweeter, from the addition of raisins. The dough, instead of being artfully pinched, is usually folded over, into a square, so it looks a bit like a mailing envelope.

Salteñas

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Photo: Jörg Rausch on Flickr

We hope not to set off the food-loving hordes, but we must inform you that the salteña, the meat empanada of Bolivia and its bordering states, is the xiao long bao of empanadas. As in soup dumplings, gelatin traps broth as a solid inside the dough when cold, then melts, turning back into liquid during the baking process. Like soup dumplings, these empanadas must be carefully nibbled from the top to avoid spurting molten-hot liquid from the pastry into one's mouth, onto one's shirt, or (oops) onto one's seatmate on the bus. The hefty outer shell of wheat dough barely contains the stew-like innards, a mess of meat (usually beef or chicken), potatoes, vegetables (usually peas), the occasional egg and/or olive, and sauce of gelatin, broth, and spicy yellow chilies. That's a lot of ingredients stuffed into something that fits in your hand.

It's difficult to travel through its namesake northern Argentinean province of Salta, Bolivia (where it's basically the national dish), or into southern Peru and miss out on this specialty—unless you sleep in. Much like pho in Vietnam, salteñas are a time-specific dish, and if you're not out of bed before noon, you might miss out. It is, however, unlikely you'll need to be very far out of bed, as salteñas are everywhere in Bolivia: if you somehow made it from bed to bus without a basket being proffered, there most certainly will be a woman selling them on the bus. Later in the morning, llauchas, giant empanadas stuffed with Bolivian cheese, become a mid-morning snack, while pukacapa, a round, spicy, cheese empanada laced with rocoto pepper, are traditional in the afternoon.

Corn Flour Empanadas

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Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

In Colombia and Venezuela, wheat flour empanadas begin to fade from the landscape and corn flour empanadas (almost always fried) spring up in their place. The corn flour used is not the masa flour for tortillas or the cornmeal on the bottom of your pizza: it's more finely ground and has been pre-cooked (generally, the whole, dried kernels are boiled, then ground). It comes in yellow and white varieties and its main use is for making arepas, the round bread (often split and stuffed) that is the regional specialty. Empanadas in Colombia most commonly use a ground-beef picadillo-type filling with potatoes and onions. In Venezuela, fresh farmers' cheeses are often stuffed inside, which makes a great snack or appetizer, but hungrier people should look to the pabellón filling. Pabellón is the national dish of Venezuela, and the empanada version simply contains all the same elements, but enveloped into the corn-based dough: shredded beef, caraotas (black beans), and tajadas (fried sweet plantains). Dominó, like the game of dominos, is black (caraotas) and white (cheese), while the list of local variations is endless, including regional specialties such as pepitonas (clams). Baby shark might sound like an adventurous option, but empanadas de cazón are a treat in Venezuela. The small, very much fish-like animal is nothing to be scared of, but Venezuelan Vitols does warn of a different danger: spurts of orange grease that ooze out as you eat this version.

The texture of the corn-based, deep-fried doughs of northern South America brings in another element: sauce. You'll see the occasional hot sauce in other places, but the crisp crust and tender inner texture of corn empanadas invite the opportunity for additional condiments. Colombian empanadas are traditionally served with ají, an onion and tomatoes sauce (and a slice of lime), and in Venezuela, you'll find guasacaca, which will replace any improper thoughts you might have had about guacamole with dreams of this light, bright, herb and avocado sauce, picante de leche (a milk-based hot sauce), and picante katara. Picante katara (or catara) is actually made from ants (a type called bachaco) cooked in yuca water, then simply mixed with scallions, leeks, and salt. The spice, reportedly, comes from the venom in the ant's ample tail portion.

Plantain and Yucca Empanadas

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Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Throughout the Caribbean and stretching down the adjacent coasts, the tropical landscape provides an alternative to either corn or wheat doughs: starchy vegetables. In Colombia, yuca (cassava) "dough" (it's simply boiled and mashed) can be seen alongside the corn flour versions—with similar fillings, preparation, and accompaniments. Yuca empanadas are called catibias in the Dominican Republic; Dominican chef Manu Alfau serves them at his Seattle restaurant La Bodega, praising the crispiness they get from the high starch content and deep-frying. The unique texture isn't easy to achieve, though, he says, pointing out that these aren't something that people make at home, because of the labor-intensive process of grinding and kneading the starchy root into a dough.

Plantains, which in their maduro (mature or sweet) form are often seen as an empanada filling, can be used similar to yuca as the dough in both the maduro or verde (green, unripe) form. In El Salvador, mature plantains (softened from the ripening process in which the starch becomes sugar) form the dough for black bean empanadas or sweet empanadas filled with a custardy sugared milk (called leche poleada), cooked until thick. Empanadas de verde, using unripe plantains (still in the starchy phase), are popular along the Ecuadorian coast, usually filled with cheese, seafood or meat. When we asked for empanada input, Ecaudorian food blogger Layla Pujol (who has written an excellent guide to empanadas herself) reminisced about her mother buying empanadas de verde at the market, then bringing them home to fry so they could be eaten warm.

Empanadas de Viento

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Photo: Max Falkowitz

Of Ecuador's vast variety of empanadas, ranging from region to region (Ecuador has Amazonian jungle, high mountain, lowlands, and coastline), empanadas de viento are Pujol's favorite. The name, which means empanadas of the wind, refers to how light they are—an odd characteristic to highlight in a dish consisting of a fat-laden dough wrapped around cheese and then deep-fried. The puffy empanadas, sprinkled with a bit of sugar, are a typical street food, though they are also served as an appetizer or side dish in restaurants. Despite the sugar topping, they are not generally considered a sweet empanada.

Sweet Empanadas

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Photo: Naomi Tomky

Sweet empanadas are a more recent development, and tend to be more common further north: in Mexico, where empanadas are a bakery item, served as breakfast or a snack with coffee, and in the Caribbean, where tropical fruits and jams tend to serve as filling. Guava paste, sometimes in tandem with cheese for a sweet and savory flavor, is common. In Uruguay and Argentina, dulce de leche, a sweet milky caramel that infiltrates nearly every dessert, is popular, while in Mexico, you'll find cajeta, a nutty goat milk caramel with the tiniest snap of barnyard funk. Pumpkin pie lovers should seek out the small pumpkin empanada found in Mexico: sweetened and spiced with cinnamon, they're a snack-sized version of the Thanksgiving treat. As empanadas enter the Pinterest era, restaurants and home cooks push the stuffing envelope, packing in combinations of fruit, chocolate, caramel, Nutella, Oreos, and anything else that can be wrapped in dough and served for dessert.

Make Your Own!

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Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Maybe it's not as quick as picking up an empanada on your way home from school, but making empanadas at home is pretty easy, as far as dinner goes, especially if you use a pre-made dough. (We won't judge!) If making your own empanadas sounds appealing, here are a few Serious Eats recipes to get you started.

Smoky Potato and Caper Empanadas with Cilantro Sauce
Mini Pulled Pork Empanadas
Potato and Corn Empanadas with Aji