“Empanada?” you say…
It’s quite a simple thing really. It’s pastry and it’s filling .
The word empanada comes from the Spanish verb ‘empanar’ which literally means to ‘wrap or coat in bread’. They are thought to have originated in medieval Iberia and are possibly derived from the samosa, left behind by when the Moors were driven out in the late 1400s.
Variations of it can be found in places as random and far-flung as El Salvador, Ghana, Haiti, Nigeria and Indonesia but it is more commonly associated, at least where I’m concerned, with Latin America and Spain.
Me, I’ve eaten a lot of empanadas in my time, mostly during my travels round South America, and so I think it’s fitting that a few of them get a mention here.
The empanada is so humble, as I said, it’s just pastry and filling. It’s delicious in it’s own right but I often think that it’s the memories that come with the food we eat that are anything but humble, and for me, complete the culinary jigsaw. Memories evoked by tastes and flavours that have resonated so strongly with me are some of the best I have. I believe food and travel work in such harmony and I really think that to experience any culture to it’s fullest, you have to get stuck into the food!
Like the time we bought a couple of empanadas from an old and characterful man at a bus stop in Santiago, Chile. They were to be our sustenance for a painstakingly long bus ride into Argentina where we would, of course, be crossing the Andes. The empanadas in Chile are much bigger and fatter than their Argentine counterparts and make a damn fine meal all on their own. Mine was yummy, filled with shredded chicken, onions, raisins, and what I think was a hint of turmeric due to the bright yellow hue of the filling. The pièce de résistance though was a whole boiled egg. A WHOLE boiled egg! I told you they were big. I don’t know about you but I find the addition of an egg to almost any dish makes it instantly better. I remember gazing out of that bus window to see the longest concrete snake in the world winding down below us while we climbed thousands of metres up into a vast and indescribable landscape. Completely and utterly breathtaking. And the funny thing was, almost all of the locals on our bus had drawn their curtains and were trying to get some shut-eye! A sight that was absolutely taken for granted in their day-to-day lives. Crossing the Andes to go and see family, attend a business meeting or whatever it was they were on their way to doing was actually just a massive inconvenience and would probably have been avoided all together had internal South American flights been cheaper.
In Argentina, empanadas are everywhere, and are appropriate for any occasion. Lunch, dinner, festivals, perfect party food. There’s rarely a better time to be had than playing taste roulette with a plate full of scrumptious empanadas, (the crimping around the edge usually denotes the filling but after a couple of drinks who can remember?!) with some good friends and some even better wine.
They can be baked ‘Salta style’ or fried ‘Tucaman style’ and are filled with pretty much anything. Ground beef, chicken, cheese, potato, egg, olives and even the odd cheeky raisin thrown in for luck. Not to mention the sweet ones “empanadas dulces” bursting at the seams with sticky fruit filling, chocolate or dulce de leche and dusted with sugar.
On a month long stint in Buenos Aires we even made our own one night. Pre-packed discs of pastry solely for this purpose are available in most supermarkets, so it seemed like an Argentine rite of passage that we should give it a bash. We arrived at our apartment eager and armed to the hilt with these pastry discs and a couple of bottles of Malbec. Apparently, Buenos Aires is known for it’s night life….sexy, steamy tango clubs and late night venues crammed with revellers, partying hard on
dancefloors awash with Fernet Branca and not surrendering until the early wee hours? Pah! Not for us. Our party was chowing down on the homemade fruits of our labour. Our flavour of choice? Leftover spag bol. A flavour not seen in all our weeks in Argentina! Revlotionary! For one night only we were empanada mavericks. Rock and frigging roll.
‘El Patio de la Empanada’ is located in the vertigo inducing heights of the city of Salta, north Argentina, and is famous for it’s offerings. It’s a sort of courtyard packed with ramshackle restaurants where different vendors jostle for your custom. The empanadas here were great, however, what stood out most for me was the steaming bowl of ‘locro’ or stew that I ordered which was full of sweet and juicy squid rings. Unfortunately for me the sweet and juicy squid rings turned out to be stretchy, rubbery pigs innards. Shudder. I suppose I should have thought to question the availability of squid 1000+m above sea level! Tried, tested and wholeheartedly rejected.
We encountered empanadas in Bolivia, where they are known as “saltenas”, in lots of different establishments where hygiene was often questionable….still, they were pretty tasty. Although when you’re starving, extremely poor and there are no scabby horses around, you’ll probably eat anything.
In fact we encountered empanadas in one form or another all the way up to Colombia, where they were always fried and greasy with a much crunchier exterior. Colombians are terrible calorie counters! Many times we relied on our little pastry friends as crutches at the end of long nights out, some of the happiest nights of my life, where salsa had been danced excruciatingly badly and far too much rum had been consumed. Nothing soaks up booze more successfully than a plate of cheesy chips or a deep-fried empanada.
So you see, it really is all about the memories, and I have all of these wonderful memories from something that is and always will be, just pastry and filling.
Perhaps the humble empanada.…..isn’t so humble after all.