The empanada. An essential for any peckish backpacker, lazy party food contributor and Argentine restaurant menu. A simple, stuffed savory pastry that looks innocent enough but carries within its golden pouch one of the longest and richest culinary histories.
Where did the empanada come from? We immediately make the assumption by its name it comes from Spain. But there is a longer trail of empanada crumbs to follow…
This bundle of warm comfort can be traced back to Persia in the ninth century, where a poet first wrote in praise of the sanbusaj: a stuffed, savoury pastry that was becoming popular across the Persian, Arab and Turkish foodie circles, and most likely originated in what we’d consider ancient Iraq. Filled with meat, onions and sometimes raisins the sanbusak would come pastry wrapped in a triangle or a half moon. Sound familiar? The sanbusak is earliest traced ancestor of the empanada.
As the sanbusak gave birth to samosas and boraks it spread around the Middle East and North Africa and its innards began to broaden to spinach and feta, cheese and potato, and even fish filled pastry pockets – always either baked or fried.
When the Moors moved into the Iberian Peninsula they brought their trusty mini meat pies with them and the Spanish also took a fondness for the primitive empanada, which first appeared in cookery books in Andalucia as early as the 1200s.
After a couple hundred years perfecting the empanada the Spanish conquistadores brought their tasty tuck with them and so the Argentine empanada was born. After a few hundred years and a couple billion taste tests later the Argentine empanada has settled into a few classics that you’ll find here and all over the country:
Although it translates as meat, carne really only means beef most of the time. Empanadas de carne will be stuffed with either ground beef or chunks of beef (carne al cuchillo) in a baked or fried pastry case and usually in a half moon shape. Depending on the region you’ll find onions, chili pepper, boiled egg, olives, raisins, cumin, herbs or potatoes. Look out for ‘arabian’ meat empanadas that carry a little more spicing and come in an open triangle. Carne is the king of empanadas with everyone having their own particular version.
Jamon y Queso:
The next most popular empanada on the list, ham and cheese pops up everywhere. Sometimes the empanada will be filled with chunks of ham and other times sliced ham roll, the cheese may be stringy mozzarella or a smooth béchamel, there might even be a sprinkle of oregano in there but it almost always comes in a rounded shape pinched at one end.
Chicken is a pretty great staple for when you’ve had enough beef. Usually quite juicy with a bit of onion, olives and red pepper mixed with shredded chicken.
Coming from the north of Argentina, this is the only mainstream vegetarian empanada (but beware of beef fat in the pastry dough) with pureed corn in a creamy and sometimes cheesy white sauce.
Verdura, or vegetable, can often be misleading as it is usually just one vegetable – swiss chard. Occasionally with onion but always a firm pinch of salt. The best empanada for getting your greens in!
During Easter in particular you’ll see a lot of these tuna empanadas filling the bakeries as people try to steer clear of meat for a short while. Quite a dry empanada normally with canned tuna and a bit of spicing.
The four cheese empanada is a gooey mess that says what it does on the tin!
Written for Playground Buenos Aires Magazine