Cousin to the Cornish pasty and the Indian samosa, the empanada is a hand-held stuffed pastry pocket. Empanadas are fixtures of various Latin American, Caribbean, Filipino, Spanish, and South American cuisines.
The name “empanada” comes from empanar, a Spanish verb that means “to wrap or cover in bread.” The empanada is most typically formed by wrapping some type of filling in a folded-over circle of dough, crimping the edges shut, then baking or frying. Although there are slight differences in the pastry dough, the real diversity is in the variety of fillings that are found across cultures and cuisines.
The filling, dough, and method of cooking vary not only by country, but also by geographic region and demographic within countries. For example, socioeconomic factors as well as geographical features may influence whether a region’s empanadas contain more potatoes or meat.
In Argentina, the traditional empanada features chopped or ground beef combined with onion, green olive, hard-boiled egg, and sometimes potato, seasoned with cumin or paprika. Argentinean empanadas may be either baked or fried, with the
former being the predominant style in more cosmopolitan settings.
Colombian empanadas may be wrapped in either potato-flour dough or corn-based dough. Beef with rice, hard-boiled eggs, and peas fill empanadas here, as do combinations of chicken, cheese, fish, carrots, and potatoes. Colombians enjoy their empanadas with aji, a piquant sauce made from vinegar, pepper, cilantro, green onions, and salt.
In Mexico, empanadas often appear at the breakfast table or as a postre, or dessert. Fillings, often sweet, may include mashed sweet potato or pumpkin or fruit. In the Chiapas region, chicken or cheese pastes, which are similar to empanadas, are eaten.
In both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, guava and cheese make a popular filling duo for fried-dough-like empanadas (called pastelillos in Puerto Rico).
Uruguay offers sweet empanadas filled with dulce de leche, quince, and/or chocolate. Venezuelan empanadas are made with a maize-based dough. The fillings for these empanadas reflect the gastronomic diversity of this region—fish, black beans, shellfish, as well as a combination of cheese and beef are available in different areas.
Smaller versions of empanadas, called empanaditas, are often served as hors d’oeuvres or appetizers with a dipping sauce or a simple sprinkle of fresh lime or lemon juice. For busy modern cooks who want to prepare this convenient grab-and-go meal, packaged premade pie crust can be substituted for homemade empanada dough.