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The Empanada: A Twist on Fast Food

Skip the takeout, skip the drive-thru, with just a little bit of a prep (and some freezer space) you can have a satisfying fast food with exotic flavors — the empanada. Prep some of these empanadas (it’s easy, we’ll show you), freeze, and then reheat anytime you want a snack or meal that’s great tasting, great for you, but just as easy as pizza rolls.

 There’s probably not a country in the world that doesn’t boast a version of the empanada, a Latin American dough-pocket which can be baked or fried and comes filled with a kaleidoscope of savory or sweet ingredients. So ubiquitous is this delicious treat the world over that its origins are still ambiguous. Some claim it was a Galician specialty imported to Latin America by the Spanish, others firmly attest to it being an Arabic treat and a few believe the humble empanada is nothing more than a Latino version of the Indian samosa. Whatever the case may be, or may have been, the modern empanada is a bona fide part of South American culture and one of the most revered treats by all who travel through the continent. Argentina, Chile and Peru claim top honors for the ‘best of the best’ empanadas and you’d be wise to agree – depending on whichever country you find yourself in, naturally – lest you start a cultural confrontation. Rest assured that wars in South America have started from far less.

The great thing about empanadas is that they are easy to replicate back home, especially when you adopt a couple of shortcuts. Sealing them with a creative twist of the dough is an art form, something which South Americans take much pride in. At home, of course, you can simply curl the edges together or even use a dessert fork to squeeze the dough. The only thing that matters is that the empanadas are sealed well, so as to prevent a filling lava flow in your oven or frying pan.  

If you’ve traveled extensively through Latin America, you will no doubt have tried different variations of empanadas. To help you bring the flavors of your journey home, here we offer a variety of filling options for you to try.

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Empanada Dough

Empanada Dough
 
Ingredients
  • 500gm plain flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 150gms butter, chilled
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • Cold, filtered water
Instructions
  1. Combine the flour, baking powder and sea salt in a bowl
  2. Grate the butter and rub it into the flour mix using your hands, until mix resembles breadcrumbs
  3. Add enough cold water – a little at a time- until the dough comes together to form a smooth dough
  4. Wrap it in cling film and store in the fridge
  5. When ready to use, roll the dough on a floured surface and divide into 12-14 equal portions
  6. Thin each portion with rolling pin (but not too thin), and trim the edges to make even discs
  7. Place one tablespoon of your desired filling into the center of each disc, brush the edges with beaten egg and fold to close, pinching the edges to seal
 

Empanada Filling

As far as I’m concerned, there should be very few rules which pertain to empanada fillings. In South America, the argument over raisins (to include or not to include?) is a matter of extreme importance. In my mouth, however, it is not! Include what you have, what you love, or whatever is in your fridge or in season. When it comes to delectable empanadas…anything goes!

The following traditional beef empanada filling recipe is the ‘mother ship’ recipe, if you will. This is the most traditional version of the mouthwatering treat, from whence all other versions spawn. You will find these empanadas, baked rather than fried, served all over Argentina.

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Traditional Beef Empanadas

Traditional Beef Empanada
 
Ingredients
  • 250grm lean beef mince
  • 2 onions, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • Chopped black olives (only a few pieces to be used in each empanada)
  • Hard-boiled eggs cut into quarters (1 quarter per empanada)
  • ¼ cup vegetable broth
  • Olive oil for cooking
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • Salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, paprika to desired taste
Instructions
  1. Brown the mince and set aside, draining the fat
  2. In a pan, brown the onions until translucent, add the spices and broth and cook for 2 minutes. Add the flour to thicken the sauce and cook on low heat for a further 3-4 minutes
  3. Allow mince mix to cool completely before using
  4. When ready to bake, spoon 1 tablespoon of beef mince mix in the center of each empanada discs, top with a quarter egg and black olive pieces
  5. Close and seal the empanadas, brush the top of each empanada with beaten egg and bake for 25-30 minutes if using real dough (20 mins for puff pastry), in an oven pre-heated to 375°F
 

Empanada Variations:

Chilean Empanadas: the delightful sweetness of Chilean empanadas comes from the addition of raisins, only 2 of which you should add right at the end, along with the olives.

Bolivian Empanadas: small yellow chillies are added to the beef, making Bolivian empanadas the spiciest of the lot. In Bolivia, empanadas are called salteñas and are usually fried rather than baked. They also usually include boiled potatoes and peas. Yes, it’s astonishing just how much food can fit into a dough-pocket the size of your palm! For this reason alone, salteñas are my go-to snack of choice when traveling through Bolivia on arduous long-haul bus rides. One can fill me up for hours.

Colombian Empanadas: Colombians take a little from both above mentioned recipes, mixing potatoes with onions.

Venezuelan Empanadas: For a true Venezuelan empanada, add black beans and fried plantains. Black beans and fresh cheese varieties are also very popular.

Ecuadorian Empanadas: Ecuador boasts perhaps the most varied collection of regional empanadas. Given that the country has such contrasting geographical attributes (from the high Andes to the coast and all the way to the Amazon) the filling options abound, depending on where you travel. My favorite Ecuadorian empanada is one filled with a generous chunk of pecorino cheese, fried, and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

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Sweet Empanadas

Sweet empanadas are the perfect dessert and can be eaten on the fly or enjoyed leisurely along with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. My favorite sweet empanada recipe comes from my dear friend Peggy Bright, exceptional cook and author of CookingOnPage32. I’ve borrowed this recipe from one of the many cookbooks which adorn her living room. I can’t wait to try and make these myself!

Peruvian Mini Apple Empanadas

Peruvian Mini Apple Empanadas
 
Ingredients
  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • 4 tart apples, such as Granny Smith
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp. grated nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 1 package puff pastry
  • 1 tsp. flour
  • Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Instructions
  1. Heat a saucepan and add butter and brown sugar, cooking until the sugar has melted.
  2. Add apples, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, the lime zest and juice, stirring every few minutes.
  3. Close and seal the empanadas and bake for 25-30 minutes if using real dough (20 mins for puff pastry), in an oven pre-heated to 375°F. Don’t forget to sprinkle with sugar before baking, for a most deliciously glazed result.
 

Bonus Empanadas Tip

Empanadas freeze exceptionally well, although only if you freeze them uncooked and cook them straight from the freezer. Don’t thaw out to room temperature or you’ll end up with a soggy mess. Same can be said for empanadas which are cooked and then frozen. To freeze, simply lay unbaked empanadas on a tray lined with baking-paper and place in freezer until they’re solid. Once frozen, you can transfer them to a freezer bag and they won’t stick together.

Written by

Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 11 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now, along with her partner in love and travel, riding a motorbike from Germany to Australia. Laura moonlights as a freelance travel writer and, between adventures, loves sharing her travel ramblings on her personal website: http://laurastraveltales.com/