Centuries before Tupperware and snap-lock bags there was the empanada: a handy parcel of food packaged in a simple bread dough or pastry. It was the Galician working man’s lunch, the on-road meal of choice for farmers, fishermen and pilgrims. So embedded is the empanada in Spanish culture that it even features in the elaborately sculpted 12th-century Pórtico de la Gloria of Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela.
The empanada’s lasting appeal is, of course, tied to its versatility and convenience: the “packaging” is edible, it can be filled with almost anything that’s in season, it makes excellent use of leftovers, and can be eaten on the run.
The name comes from the Spanish verb “empanar”, meaning to wrap in pastry or coat in bread. Inside you’ll find almost any meat or seafood, often mixed with a sautéed combination of onion, capsicum and chilli. The pie is then either baked or deep-fried. Today, there are countless variations sold all over Spain and Latin America – either by the wedge or as individual empanadillas.
At Sugarloaf Patisserie in Sydney’s Kogarah, Kurt Bieder makes an Argentine version (deep-fried crescents filled with beef and egg) and a Chilean version (baked squares of meat, egg and olive). In the latter, he’ll pop in sultanas on request – often from his older South American customers who enjoy the classic burst of sweetness. As for the pastry, he says the secret is the lard, and getting the thickness right. “Too thick and the empanada will be doughy; too thin and the contents will break out.”
The Colombian version, meanwhile, uses no fat, just maize flour and water. “The texture is very different to other empanadas,” says Matt O’Donohue from Marcelita’s Empanadas in Perth. “Pretty much all the ones you’ll find on street corners in Colombia are deep-fried, and the outer shell is very crisp and crunchy.”
The dough we’ve opted for below is classic Galician with its addition of butter and vinegar. But whichever pastry you use, says O’Donohue, remember it’s foremost a “delivery vehicle for the fillings, which should be generous with punchy flavours”. Right on.