The empanada has come into its own as the typical Chilean food preperation. For starters we really see no point in trying to find a convenient English word in place of empanada. A trip to some of the haunts on the standard tourist routes will reveal words like “Chilean meat pastry” “meat turnover” or some other slightly awkward term. So we’ll just continue saying empanada.
Many Chileans will swear that the empanada is a Chilean innovation, but to be honest it has to be one of the most basic forms of food besides bread. Stuff bread with meat or other ingredient, bake or fry, it’s something that can be found in pretty much any culture. (The blog Eating Chile has a great list of those here along with a lengthy analysis on the entire history of the empanada).
The secret to the empanada is in the quality of its dough and the filling. For baked empanadas the dough is thicker, more like traditional bread. Cheese empanadas do tend to have a more pastry style dough like you would expect for a pie and fried empanadas have a thinner traditional dough.
Here are some of the typical empanada forms you’re going to find in Chile:
Empanada de Pino: This is THE empanada for practical purposes. These are made either with ground beef or small beef cubes, onion, cumin, aji de color (which is not the same as paprika or cayenne pepper. Looks similar but has a different taste). Then a hard-boiled egg, a black olive (with pit so be prepared) are also thrown in there. These are normally baked but can also be prepared in fried form although this is less common.
For these its best to find a place that has a mud oven fueled with a wood fire. It’s the traditional way and apart from the touch of smoky flavor it gives them , it suggests more care to stick to a homemade tradition in the recipe although it isn’t guaranteed. If in the city at least find one cooked in an oven and avoid as much as you can eating an empanada reheated in a microwave. They can also be heated on a grill but best if they haven’t been fully cooked in an oven since the dough tends to get tough.
Again the key is the dough and ingredients. Dough should be easy to pull apart and have its own flavor. You can also find ones made with wheat or even corn, or varying mixes of wheat and white. For the filling be aware of the beef quality, best one that was specifically made for the empanada, not just yesterday’s steak that wasn’t finished. The true sign of a shady empanada is when it has one tiny chunk of beef and mouthful after mouthful of onion. Yuck.
Empanada de Queso: Very simple: filled with cheese. Either in a flakey pastry dough or fried. We recommend the second option since they almost have to be made fresh. The pastry ones can be good straight out of the oven but typically found in a cooler in some lost neighborhood Almacen. These can come in either small cocktail sizes or one about the size of your hand. Good when you add some fresh pebre .
Empanada de Marisco: A fried empanada filled with shellfish. This usually means scallops or shrimp but could include almost anything else ripped alive from its seashell. These can be a great way to start getting a taste for the shellfish variety here in Chile without staring down the little sea bug in his or her home drowning him with lemon and sending it down the hatch. But like any sort of seafood, always better the closer to the source. So head to the local dive at a fish market or dock for the best options.
Sort of a pizza flavored empanada with tomato, oregano, ham and can also include olives and cheese if the place likes to treat its clients. A good alternative if you don’t want a heavy empanada de pino but aren’t in the mood for pure cheese.
While the majority of empanadas you’re going to find are salty you can find small little sweets that take empanada form. With a much harder crust and sort of a glaze, these treats are usually stuffed with a fruit mix like apple or peach. They tend to crumble a bit and most often are sold on the side of the road near the toll ways, although you can find them in bakeries as well.
Since the empanada is a pretty basic format you can add just about anything. Some of the better alternatives are cheese and mushrooms, chicken and corn, cheese and corn, among others. There are even now “empanadas de autor” which bring all sorts of different mixes together. Some of these are sold frozen so you can cook them in your oven for a party and tell your friends you made them. The best example is Felipe Didier (site) which has opened branches throughout Santiago and has all sorts of solutions to the muchies like empanadas with chicken, cream cheese and chives.
Following the same logic as a pound burrito or hamburger you can even find a kilo empanada in the town of Pomaire, just south of the city. A bit much for our tastes though.
As mentioned above Chile is hardly the only country to offer empanadas, in Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela you can find some version of the empanada. For example in Argentina they have a different set of spices, aren’t as heavy on the onion, and are served with some chimichurri sauce. In Venezuela empanadas are eaten everywhere, but as breakfast, along with a malt beverage that usually depicts a baseball player on the front of the bottle. We have to say nothing beats waking from a night of Venezuelan rum than stuffing your face with some fried bread and meat covered in hot sauce.
What’s your favorite empanada stand/joint /style?? Anything we missed?
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