Empanadas are the snack of choice in South America. These delectable meat or cheese-stuffed pastries (to empanar is to coat something in bread in Spanish) are sold from cardboard-carton bearing street vendors in the morning, on glass shelves in both sit-in and takeaway bakeries, and on wooden boards in upscale restaurants alike.
Babs and I didn't pay much attention to the first empanada we bought on the continent in Lima, Peru. We were trying to make it to a downtown Inca ruin site before it closed for the day and simply grabbed a bite from an Italian-style bakery enroute (I really wish I had noted its name and address now). At first glance, the empanada reminded us of cornish pasties in the UK, the Indian samosas of Babs's youth, and the Singapore curry puffs of mine. They were familiar. Almost subconcious.
And then we bit into the empanadas.
And stopped in our tracks.
There were onions and a hint of spice, of course. And a chunk of hard-boiled egg, again remniscent of a samosa or a curry puff. But the beef was cubed, not minced, which -- like a memorable cubed-beef pide (Turkish pizza) I had in Goreme, Turkey -- opened up a whole new horizon to a familiar dish.
And there were all these other exotic twangs. A tinge of sugar in the pastry. The juice of currants amid the beef. A bite of a briny black olive.
That's when we started sampling empanadas everywhere we could. Which soon became a full-blown anthropological exercise when long-time fellow foodie "Hollow Legs" Jas and her boyfriend Dom joined us in Bolivia and Argentina.
Above: Fellow empanada examiners Jas and Dom at El Patio in Sucre, Bolivia
Jas and I focused our (ahem) study on empanadas carne (meat). Our one departure was a "meh" Galician-style sardine empanada -- a moist flaky sardine full-moon rather than half-moon puff-pastry pie -- sampled at Breogan Taberna Gallego in the ski-hub of Bariloche, Argentina.
Empanada Empirical Findings:
- As far as we know, empanadas are called empanadas just about everywhere on the continent. Except in Bolivia, where they are called salteñas. This is because the advent of the current version of the pastry is attributed to one Juana Manuela Gorriti -- a feminist writer and journalist, as it turns out! Gorriti was born in Salta, Argentina (close to the Bolivian border) but spent many years as a political exile in Bolivia. While in exile, she made and sold empanadas to make a living. It was apparently common to say to kids: "Ve y recoge una empanada de la salteña" ("go and pick up an empanada from the woman from Salta"), and over time the nickname for the pastry stuck and spread throughout Bolivia.
- If you tell someone from Salta you want to eat a salteña, however, they will look at you funny. Our Salta born-and-bred guide Joaquin who showed us around the salt flats of northern Salta exclaimed, "Er... you want to eat... me?!"
- Most restaurants we went to served empanadas baked, but outdoor vendors who have the culinary integrity to serve a freshly cooked empanada will serve it deep-fried. Case in point: Even though there is nothing but hundreds of miles of canyons around you, you can get juicy piping hot empanadas at the natural "Amphiteatre" at Quebrada de las Conchas (the Shell´s Gorge), on Route 68 between Salta and Cafayate in Argentina. The Argentinians sure know how to use a few logs and a pot of oil to give fancy kitchenware a hard run for their money!
Above: The empanada stand at the entrance of "the Amphitheatre"
Above: And for context, said "Amphitheatre"
- After about 3 weeks of exhaustive empanada examination, my vote for the beefiest, juiciest, most flavourful savoury Argentinian-style empanada carne goes to El Boliche de Alberto, a parilla institution in Bariloche, Argentina. (I'll update this if necessary if a finding in Buenos Aires trumps Alberto)
- The Bolivians in Sucre, however, have managed to change the game, making the salteña an entity in its own right. Sucre salteñas use a sweetish slightly flakier pastry, which serve as innocuous envelopes for very rich soupy stews -- a delightfully messy drippy experience for the novice salteña sampler. This gravy is kept solid-ish by cooking gelatin into the stew and then chilling it before constructing the actual salteña. (Foodie footnote: Purists use beef bone marrow instead of gelatin!) The most famous place to sample a Sucre salteña is at El Patio, which on the Sunday we were there was packed to the gills with well coiffed locals from old minining-moneyed families. El Patio's salteñas are so juicy they're served with spoon. Mind your shirt! Babs has built a collection of lurid gravy stains on his.
Above: The inside story on empanadas (left) vs. salteñas
All these empirical findings on empanadas begs the question: What would be your platonic ideal for an empanada?
- Would the pastry be savoury or sweet?
- Would the filling be beef / chicken / lamb / ham / fish / cheese / egg / vegetables / other?
- Would the filling be soupy or dry?
- Would the filling be strictly savoury, or include a tinge sweet?
- If the filling is meat, would it be minced or cubed?
- Would there be fillers such as potato or carrots or peas or egg or olives?
- Would the empanada be baked or deep-fried?
- Would there be a game-changing twist not even yet covered here?
And, finally, if your ideal empanada already exists, where (for the love of fellow foodies!) do you get it?!
Breogan Taberna Gallego
Avenue St Martin 405
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
+54 (0)2944 529 511
El Boliche de Alberto
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
+54 (0)2944 431 433
San Alberto 18
(10am to 12.30pm only)