Let’s consider the empanada. In appearance it is simple and unobtrusive. A pocket of dough, baked or fried, with a center of sweet or savoury perfection, that can fit neatly in your hand and never fails to satisfy a hungry body or weary soul. In many ways the empanada (em-pah-na-tha), ubiquitous throughout Central and South America, is an ultimate comfort food that is as diverse as the geographic area it comes from and the people who make them.
With regional ingredients, tweaks and flourishes empanadas are a staple rich in cultural and culinary traditions that go from spicy to subtle, and include iterations imbued with new tastes and textures for an adventurous eater. As far as I know even though there are many traditional recipes, when it comes to empanadas the sky is the limit. Dough can be made out of corn, wheat or white flour and the fillings can be standard, or include more exotic regional delicacies like Nopales, which are cactus leaves.
Known in some parts as a ‘hand pie,’ or as a “turnover.” Maybe it’s because they are uniquely comforting that empanadas, much like bread and noodles, tend to transcend cultural and geographical divides. In the United Kingdom there is the Cornish Pasty, in Brazil the Pastéis, In Italy the Calzone, and I would argue that the Samosa from India, and the Chinese Bao are simply cousins farther afield to the empanada we have all come to know and love.
My own meager empanada making efforts started in 2011, during a prolonged stretch between the end of a job and the start of graduate school, when on a whim, I did an internet search for a recipe to make myself some Empanadas de Pino. In 2011 it was slim pickings as far as empanada recipes went and in the end I pulled a handful of recipes that sounded about right and cobbled together my own. My methods are very much in line with making it up as I go along although the end result did not disappoint and the Empanadas de Pino I made, tasted exactly as I remembered and it immediately transported me back to our slow Sunday afternoon stroll to the local bakery to pick up our weekly order of empanadas.
Empanadas de Pino were just the beginning for me. Shortly thereafter I made some spicy bean and cheese for my vegetarian friends, and then I tried making some Tuna and Green Olive Empanadas,” for a party a few years later, and I even made some Banana and Nutella Empanadillas, (I didn’t follow a recipe for that one although I’m sure one exists) which I figured would be delicious the way everything with Nutella tends to be. If I’m honest, my favourite is still a good Empanadas De Pino, but everything that I have wrapped in dough and thrown in the oven has been at least somewhat successful.
The biggest hurdle with empanadas, if you are making them, is finding the time to prepare all the filling and the dough. Once you’re all in and ready to start the actual fabrication process, that’s when the real work begins. Assembling the empanadas can take some time if you are making a lot of them. I find it easier to brew some coffee, put on a movie or some music and do them myself but if you are trying to make a lot it might be just as easy to set everything up assembly line style and rope in a few friends.
In my humble opinion there is no better way to start understanding different cultures than through food. Unlike music, clothing and hairstyles which can change from region to region and you can live without, eating is a basic human need and its something we can all get behind. I have rarely met an empanada I didn’t like, and while I have yet to find someone who is willing to pay me to travel the world one sampling one empanada at a time, we all have our goals and I have every hope that my empanada adventures will continue.