Empanadas—the ubiquitous baked or fried Latin American snacks filled with all manner of savory ingredients—are believed to have come to the Americas via Spain in the 16th century. Every country in South America has regional variations of these on-the-go treats, which are also found in Mexico, Portugal, Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines.
Let this empanada guide whet your appetite for the flavors of Latin America.
Empanadas are akin to a religion here. Most frequently consumed as snacks or a light lunch, they’re sold everywhere from train stations and on the street to dedicated empanaderias. The fillings range from spiced ground beef to ham and cheese, chicken, fresh corn with béchamel, or Roquefort cheese and onion; the diversity is a reflection of Argentina’s French, Spanish, Italian and indigenous heritage.
The high-altitude northern province of Salta is considered Argentina’s epicenter of empanadas; the specialties reflect the arid region’s climate, and are baked in earthen hornos or ovens. Empanadas de choclo have a savory, hominy-like filling, while charqui is an air-dried beef that’s been softened by cooking with aromatics and the steam from the baking process.
In the province of Tucuman, empanadas are such a point of pride that they get their own Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada. Tucuman empanadas are usually made with beef, although chicken is also popular. The beef is hand-chopped, rather than ground, and is topped with slices of hard-boiled egg. The filling often includes raisins and a whole black olive.
While not as varied or regionally diverse as those found in Argentina, Chile makes supersized empanadas, the most common of which are pino—ground or chopped beef with raisins; chopped, hard-boiled egg; and chopped olives. They’re massive, and one can easily make a meal.
In tropical climates like Ecuador’s, it’s commonplace to find baked empanadas made with boiled, green plantain dough. Known as empanadas de verde, they’re typically filled with gooey white cheese and are a popular breakfast or afternoon snack. Giant, airy, fried empanadas filled with slightly sweetened queso fresco and dusted with sugar—empanadas de viento—are a popular street food, as well. You’ll also find coastal versions filled with seafood, not just in Ecuador but in other parts of Latin America.
Made with masa-based (cornmeal) dough and filled with potatoes or ground meat and fried, these petite versions are popular snacks, served with aji picante—a vinegar-based chile condiment—and a love match when consumed with cold cerveza.
Known as pastel and sold on the street or in pastelerias, these bite-size salgados (savory snacks) are usually fried and filled with everything from ground meat, hearts of palm, a mild white melting cheese and spicy shrimp to guava paste or a sweetened, ricotta-like cheese.
Popular street foods, emapanadas are classified as salteñas or tucumanas. Salteñas are baked pastries formed into domed half-moons, filled with a spiced meat and egg mixture, but their essential purpose is to be full of juice. Be careful eating them—they’re meant to be consumed with a spoon, in part to prevent second-degree mouth burns and unintentional spills. Tucumanas are basically the same shape as empanadas, but fried. They’re often filled with a mixture of chicken and potato. Consume this utterly delicious, high-altitude fare with salsa.
The empanadas in this paradisiacal, little-known tropical nation sandwiched between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil are the best-kept secret in South American cuisine. Like their Chilean counterparts, they’re big, baked and busting with savory fillings like ham and molten cheese, ground beef or chicken.
If you’re eager to sample South America’s savory treats, join TCS World Travel when we explore South America.