Buenos Aires – the Empanadas: art and recipe
Yes Argentina is known for its asado (meat cooked over fire) but empanadas have long been the mainstay of its cuisine. Empanada, meaning “wrapped in bread” is said to have been imported to Latin America with the Spanish who made a special double crusted pie filled with meats or vegetables. Once it landed in Latin America, this delicious morsel adapted to local style and ingredients and became what it is today: an individual pastry that fits perfectly in your hand, filled with various fillings, folded into a crescent, sealed a certain way and baked or fried.
Eating an empanada in Argentina is not a knife and fork thing. You wrap the end of the empanada with a paper napkin folding it around the bottom to capture any drizzles of juice from the filling and you eat with your hands. Sometime it’s a good idea to lean over a plate just in case, especially for beginners, as juices may drizzle in spite of the napkin. I got a few stains to prove it.
Where do you get the best empanadas in Buenos Aires? people often answered “at my house, my wife makes the best” but inevitably, names of a few places pop up. Buenos Aires is made of barios (neighbourhoods) and people in each of these neighbourhoods would have their local favourite. Some places however acquired reputation as a destination empanada places and I tried to get to a few of them.
It’s all in the seal
Let’s have a quick empanada lesson. You know the saying “don’t judge a book by it’s cover?” Well, this does not work with empanadas. Experts can tell you what is inside the empanada just by looking at it on the outside. How, you may ask? I will tell you: they can tell what the filling is by the way the empanada is folded and sealed.
Beef empanadas are folded in braided pattern, aka repulge technique, meaning you fill the empanada, seal it and then fold the edge of the dough onto it self, tucking it in to create a sealed braid. This is an art form and some of the empanadas you see were are amazingly beautiful.
For an empanada with chicken filling you fold it to create a look of a “comb” or cock’s comb, telling those who know what is inside the empanadas.
Ham and cheese empanadas are folded much like tortellini pasta would be, with the edges pressed and then folded to create a little (or not so little ) pouch.
Vegetable filled empanadas would be sealed by pressing the tines of a fork against the edges of the crescent shaped dough to seal them, so if you see those fork marks you know it’s vegetarian.
There are many more fillings and shapes but I believe these four are the basic and you can count on them to work in identifying content.
Depending who you ask, empanada dough is usually made with wheat flour or corn masa. Fat vary from rendered beef fat to butter, oil or pork fat. To that you add water, egg and a drop of vinegar,
You make the dough much like pastry dough, cutting the fat into the flour until it resembles coarse meal, then add eggs, water and a drop of vinegar and combine with the flour-fat mixture. Little kneading is required, not too much, just to bring the dough together, then it gets refrigerated before rolling into thin disks. I have never made empanadas before but plan to try when I get back home.
Here are a few ideas of kind of empanadas you can find:
- Carne – traditional ground beef emapanadas
- Carne picada – mild beef cut with a knife, not ground
- Carne picante – spicy beef, but Argentina food is never really spicy
- Jamon y queso – ham and cheese
- Pollo – chicken, ground or cut with a knife
- Queso y cebola – cheese and onion
- Humita – creamy corn filling
- Verdura- vegetable, often Swiss chard or spinach and hard boiled egg
Where to eat empanada in Buenos Aires (in no particular order):
Cumaná (Rodríguez Peña 1165, Recoleta). A beautiful casual restaurant in our Recoleta neighbourhood known for assado and empanadas. We arrived around 9:00 with quite a few tables available and within less than 10 minutes the restaurant was full with a line up outside. We were surprised how inexpensive the delicious dinner was.
Güerrín (Corrientes 1368). A famed pizza place that also makes great empanadas. It’s large and busy always. If you can’t get a table try sitting at the bar and have a few.
La Cocina (Av. Pueyrredón 1508). A little hole in the wall”ish” place in Recoleta but not a beautiful part of the bario. It attracts locals and tourists all day long. There is barely any room to sit and a few small chairs along a narrow counter but the empanadas are worth a special trip. Their special one is Pikachu, a “spicy” cheese, onions and spicy sauce, but really, not very spicy (Argentinian food is not spicy). After a few empanadas we walked from there to the Recoleta Cemetery for one more look at the graves. About 15 minutes walk.
El San Juanino (Posada 1515, Recoleta). Also in our neighbourhood of Recoleta and surrounded by luxury hotels this restaurant has been here for 50 years and that says something. Try their fried Empanadas Gran Sanjuanino or the onion and cheese ones but there a few different varieties to choose from. Lovely casual and unassuming interior. Next door you’ll find the fancy and elegant Fervor restaurant which is also worth a visit.
La Guitarrita (Niceto Vega 4942 Palermo). If are exploring Palermo try this unassuming corner restaurant in the Las Canitas area of Palermo. Very good empanadas that are worth a detour. They serve them with chimichuri and salsa criolla. Try them with a glass of Bodega Etchart Torrontes 2017, intensly perfumed with jasmine aromas. We went there on a food tour of the area. More on that to come.
El Origen del Sabor (Marcelo T. Alvear 1589 Recoleta). Also in our “hood” of Recoleta this place offers a huge selection of fillings that fray from the traditional and explore variety of flavour combinations. If you are in the mood for a flavour experiment go there and try the Roquefort and walnut, Pumpkin with mozzarella or cherry empanadas. Why not?
Parilla Peña (Rodríguez Pena 682, Recoleta). Perhaps in Recoleta but not a pretty part of the bario, you come here for the food. Nicely set up inside with a huge wood fired grill at the entrance this is an old fashioned place that is a destination for porteños but not necessarily for tourists. Professional waiters dressed in white jackets bring a complimentary juicy fried beef empanada as soon as you settle at your table. This is a parilla place but their empanadas are excellent.
El Quartito (Talcahuano 937). Another pizza place that makes some great empanadas. This is a hoping pizza place with lots of people coming and going. Most people have pizza with garbanzo bean flatbread they call faina. I have to look into this further. Their empanadas a good and made fresh all evening long. I had fun watching the kitchen pump out the huge quantities of food.
You can also buy empanadas at bakeries to take home, you’ll find them on every corner and in my experience they are pretty delicious.
How is this for a list for first time visitor to Buenos Aires?
Here is a recipe provided by German Landa, a guide with Parilla tour Buenos Aires, with a link (below) to a video showing how to fold the empanadas. He doesn’t give a recipe for the dough, I will add that when I make it at home. In the meantime, here is one I saw online.
Recipe by Germán Landa.
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500g pastry dough (in Argentina you can buy pre-made discs – tapas para empanadas – if you don’t want to make the dough by hand.)
Egg yolk for brushing the tops of the empanadas
300g boiled potatoes
3 hardboiled eggs
250g spring onion
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon red chilli powder (less if you don’t like it spicy)
Salt to taste
Finely chop all of the ingredients, including the beef. The potatoes should be al dente. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and fry the meat until golden brown. Add the onion, potatoes, cumin, chilli and paprika, and enough water from the potatoes to cover the mixture. Cover and cook until the meat is tender. Add salt to taste. Leave to cool, then add the chopped egg and spring onion.
Preheat oven to 180°C. Shape the dough into circles approximately 13cm in diameter (or use the pre-made discs). Add a heap of filling into the centre of each disc. Wet the edges with water. Fold the disc in half, then seal the edges with a fork or, if you’re feeling adventurous, finish the empanadas with the repulgue fold.