Luis buying Sunday breakfast empanadas, Buenos Aires, Argentina (photo by Fernando Garcia)
Almost every country in the world has some version of empanada or turnover: some kind of meat, poultry, fish, cheese, vegetable or combination thereof, wrapped up in a small packet of dough, bread, pastry or cornmeal. The word "empanada" comes from the Spanish "empanar", meaning "to wrap". This is an excellent food-to-go option for locals and travelers alike, as empanadas are inexpensive, convenient, un-messy, portable, filling and tasty. You don't need a knife, fork, spoon, chopsticks, plate or bowl; just a napkin or two will suffice. You can grab a quick, satisfying snack or meal without having to sit down in a restaurant or cafe for lunch, perfect for when you don't want to lose time sightseeing. Just buy, walk and eat. If you want to slow down, you can stand at a counter in the bakery and eat them where you bought them, soaking in the local atmosphere. Every region (in fact, every bakery, restaurant or cafe) has a different method of preparation and combination of fillings and tastes, so trying various local empanadas is a great way to sample a variety of local flavors. They are generally small, so you can try a few or many different types without committing to a larger meal. All in all, the perfect travel meal.
The Venezuelan version of empanadas: fried and encased in corn meal (photo by Simone Cannon)
Argentina: in South America, there are generally two types of empanada: one made with wheat flour and fried or baked in dough with a crimped edge and the other made with cornmeal and usually fried in an envelope-style form. The Argentine variety, the crimped-edge type, is usually filled with carne molida (ground meat), carne cortada (sliced meat), pollo (chicken), jamon y queso (ham and cheese) or verdura (kale, spinach and/or other greens). They often contain other ingredients such as chopped hard-boiled egg, green olives, chopped garlic or onion and are also available in flavors such as roquefort, humita (hominy or creamy corn), brotola (forkbeard fish), atun (tuna) or even pulpo (octopus). At Easter, there is the Cuaresma (Lent) empanada (usually a fish mixture). Each flavor of empanada has a distinct shape, making it easy to distinguish which empanada contains which filling (once you learn the shapes...)
Venezuela: the fried cornmeal empanada is the most common in Venezuela. The fillings usually include meat, fish and queso blanco (a type of semi-hard, salty white cheese). Since Venezuela has a long coastline on the Caribbean, many empanadas are filled with locally caught fish such as cazón (school shark), oysters, clams or shrimp, especially on Isla Margarita (Margarita Island) and because of the Caribbean influence, can include caraotas (stewed black beans), raisins, plantains, panela (solid cane sugar) or guiso (a type of meat or chicken stew made with red wine, red peppers and capers).
Wow...hot, hot, hot! Sampling extra spicy Jamaican meat pies near Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada (photo by Luis Bastardo)
England: the UK's version of empanadas are called Cornish Pasties. Generally larger than other empanadas, pasties are normally filled with a mixture of beef, potato, onion, and root vegetables such as turnips, swedes (rutabagas), beets or carrots. They are generally mild in flavor and much less spicy than South American or Asian empanadas. It was a popular lunch for day laborers in England for many years, as it was a hearty, inexpensive lunch that could be easily transported, required no cutlery and came complete with a toss-away pastry handle (the crusty fluted edge), leaving the other hand free for an restorative mug of ale. The Scottish version, a Bridie, has a more delicate pastry and does not contain potatoes.
Italy: the Calzone (Italian for "stocking" or "trouser") is well-known and popular throughout the world, and usually contains mozzarella and/or ricotta, garlic, tomato sauce and pepperoni or sausage. In Italy, versions vary widely, depending on the region. Fillings may include onions, broccoli, anchovies, regional meats and sausages, whole roasted garlic cloves, olives and homemade Italian cheeses. They are often served with a marinara style sauce for dipping.
Crispy samosas filled with paneer (fresh Indian cheese), carrot, peas and spices (photo courtesy of http://www.orientalfoods.biz/)
Jamaica: if you've ever visited a city with a large Jamaican population or visited the Caribbean, you are probably already familiar with the delicious Jamaican Meat Patty. With spice levels ranging from Mildly Spicy to Medium Hot to Smoke Coming Out of Your Ears, these tasty patties are usually filled with ground beef, goat or lamb, or occasionally fish, shellfish or a local fruit known as ackee, which when cooked, resembles scrambled eggs. The crust is tinted yellow with either egg yolk or turmeric and flavored with curry, ginger, garlic, cumin, allspice, cardamom, scotch bonnet peppers (habaneros) and sometimes Jamaican rum.
India: because of the large vegetarian population in India, the empanadas known as Samosas often don't contain meat (although it is possible to buy a chicken, lamb or fish-stuffed samosa depending on the region). Unlike other empanadas, samosas are wrapped in a triangular form, rather than a crescent shape and contain ingredients such as onions, lentils, chick peas, carrots, paneer (homemade Indian cheese), chilies, cabbage leaves, eggplant, potato, pumpkin or chutney and can be spiced with tamarind, curry (curry blends vary widely in India), coriander, mint or chopped Kaffir Lime leaves. In a country as diverse as India, there are staggering possibilities of spicy filling combinations, all delicious and addictive.
Delicious homemade perogies with onion and bacon dressing (photo courtesy of http://thibeaultstablerecipes.blogspot.com/)
Poland: Perogies are Poland's version of empanadas and can be baked, fried or boiled and are traditionally served with sour cream, bacon fat or apple sauce. Fillings include mashed potato, onion, cabbage, cheese (e.g. farmer's cheese, a sheep's milk such as bryndza or fresh white curd), mushrooms or seasonal vegetables.
Many other countries and cultures have their own versions of empanadas: the Indonesian Panada, the Nigerian Meat Pie, the French Canadian Meat Pies, the Virgin Island Paté, the Chinese Jiaozi, the Jewish Knish. Most of them originated in peasant cooking traditions as a method of using leftovers efficiently or providing portable, inexpensive lunches for workers, but have happily spread to every part of the globe, much to the delight of hungry travelers on the go everywhere.