It is difficult to say from where exactly the empanada originated. Some say that the Muslims from North Africa, who invaded Spain, brought empanadas with them, while others say it was the Spanish who invented this dish. And still, others say it was first spotted in Persia. Regardless of its origins, the empanada is really delicious and very popular here in New York. It is a lot like a samosa, but commonly shaped like a half or crescent moon.
Empanadas are commonly sold in many eateries, especially Spanish ones. The term comes from the Spanish word ‘empanar,’ which means breaded. People from the Caribbean Islands also make something similar but they are simply called patties, and Pakistan has a variation too, called the same thing.
But coming back to empanadas, after I ate the first one, numerous others followed. And before I go on, let me give you more details regarding its history.
As mentioned above, some researchers first traced empanadas to Persia. But would you have guessed that this was in 100 BC? Yes, in those days, until more concrete cooling methods were invented, one had to think of how to preserve food. Empanadas were perfect in that sense because they stay preserved for a long time.
They are pocket-sized and could easily be carried by traders and warriors, moving from one place to another. It is made out of pastry dough, usually with a savoury filling of any kind — fish, meat, vegetables, etc, and are either baked or fried.
From Persia, it was next traced to the Muslims who invaded Spain from North Africa in 711 AD and lived there for a few centuries. The Muslim influence on Spanish culture and cuisine is very visible in Spain. From here, the Spanish took the empanadas to the Americas, much of which they invaded in the 1500s.
Eating an empanada will magically transfer you back to the days of Cyrus the Great, the Umayyads of Spain’s Al-Andalus, the mountains of Mexico or the vibrant festivals of the Americas
Empanadas unite all the cultures of the Americas despite the variations in ingredients and cooking methods. Whether fried or baked, they give off a delicious aroma that makes you want to eat them hungrily. You simply cannot resist. My favourite, in any culture, is always the one with ground beef, peppers, onions, garlic and potatoes. I often make them at home.
Empanadas make a good breakfast, lunch or dinner. They can also be served as appetisers. Some cultures make them sweet, which incidentally brings me to the origins of my parents’ and partly my own culture.
Both my parents were born in Goa, and much of Goan food is Portuguese-influenced. Around Christmas time, we make a sweet empanada, commonly called Neuoris or Nevris. The filling is usually made of desiccated coconut, raisins, sugar, almonds, sesame seeds and cardamom. Prepared a week or two before Christmas, one cannot wait to eat a bunch of them on Christmas day. They are absolutely delicious, and I’m sure you are now ready to make your own empanadas.
2 cups of all purpose flour
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons of oil
1/2 cup of water or as needed
1 large egg (optional)
Combine all the items, except water, with a fork. When crumbly, add water gradually, and use your hands to knead flour into dough. Knead for about 10 minutes or until the dough springs back when you touch it. Let it rest while you make your filling.
1 pound ground beef/mince
1 medium sized onion (chopped)
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon black pepper powder
1 teaspoon smoked or regular red chilli powder
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 chopped green bell/capsicum pepper (optional)
1 chopped red bell/capsicum pepper (optional)
2 medium size potatoes, cut into small cubes
2 medium to large sized tomatoes (diced)
4 cloves of garlic (minced)
Thumb-size piece of fresh ginger (minced)
4 bay leaves
1/2 bunch of chopped coriander for garnish
2 cooking spoons of oil
Brown onions in oil over medium flame, in a large pan. Toss in garlic and ginger, and stir for a minute. Add the mince to your pan, and stir for three minutes. Now add cumin, chilli powder, salt, black pepper powder, bay leaves and garlic powder and stir for around two minutes. Toss in the tomatoes and let everything fry for five minutes, while stirring.
Add the potatoes, but make sure the tomatoes have left enough of their juices in the pan to prevent burning. You could also add some water if needed. Cover with lid and continue to cook for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are soft. Now toss in the capsicum and cook for around three minutes. Make sure the filling is dryish, otherwise it will leak water out of the empanada when frying. Turn the stove off and garnish with coriander.
Assembling the empanadas and frying them
1 wok or deep medium size pot
6 cooking spoons oil or more if you need
1/2 glass of water
A cooking brush
Pull out a walnut size ball of dough, and roll out to a round disk, a couple millimetres thick and about four inches in diameter. Place two to three teaspoons of filling in the centre of one half of the disk and pack together tightly. Dip the brush in the glass of water, and brush it on the dough around the filling, all the way to the edges. Now, fold the one empty half over the one with the filling, and seal the edges by pressing the dough together, making sure there aren’t any pockets of air inside the filling area.
Then, starting at one end of the edge, twist the dough slightly, but firmly with your fingers, working your way around the whole edge, to ensure that the filling doesn’t leak into the pan while frying.
Now, warm the oil in a wok or pan on a medium flame for a few minutes. When it is hot, place two to three empanadas (depending on the size of the wok) into the oil, leaving some space between them. Let them fry golden brown on one side, and then flip over.
You can also hold them down with your spatula to make sure they are getting cooked thoroughly. When both sides are done, remove them and place on a paper towel. After a few minutes of cooling down, dig into them with your teeth. You could also make or use a sauce of your choice to dip the empanadas in. Enjoy!
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021