Potato and Peanut Empanadas. Photo: Jimena Agois

The little pies with a lot of history in The Latin American Cookbook

Empanadas can be found in pretty much all of Latin America though their origins lie an ocean away

The Latin American Cookbook is a fascinating culinary survey, not only because it brings together 600 recipes from this culturally rich and diverse region, but also because authors Virgilio Martínez, the James-Beard-nominated writer and photographer Nicholas Gill and Mater Iniciativa contextualise these dishes, giving readers insight into how they make them, and also how these dishes came to be.

The book proudly distinguishes the ingredients, such as potatoes, maize and peppers, that originate in this part of the Americas. However, they’re also equally quick to point out the foods we often think of as Latin American, that actually have a very different origin.

Plenty of common Latin American staples were introduced to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors; though in many cases, the Spanish did not create these dishes themselves, but instead received them from other cultures.

Take the empanada, or the hand-sized pies or turnovers that are enjoyed throughout almost all of Latin America. They came from Spain (the name comes from a Galician word which means to cover in bread), but they aren’t a Spanish original, as our new book explains.

“Their roots lie in the Middle East, from where they made their way to Europe to evolve, before the Spanish brought them to the Americas,” says the text in the book. “During the colonial period in Latin America, they didn’t look different from the ones in Galicia: large, baked, circular or rectangular double-crust pies with yeasted dough and savory fillings like tuna or chicken, served by the slice.

“Over time, empanadas were adapted in Latin America and took on a life of their own. The smaller, handheld version became standard. Yeast was forgotten, and the dough didn’t necessarily need to be made from wheat flour either. It could be made from cornflour or tapioca flour, or cut with beef fat. The fillings ventured out into the terrain, adding in potatoes, chilies, mushrooms, and local spices.


Bolivian-Style Turnover. Photo: Jimena Agois
Bolivian-Style Turnover. Photo: Jimena Agois

“Some of the best, like those in and around Salta, Argentina, are baked in a wood-fired, clay oven (horno de barro), where leoparding, black burn spots and bubbles, just like on a Neapolitan pizza, are prized. Others are fried (frito), like the potato and peanut sauce-filled empanada de pipián from Popayán, Colombia.

“Empanadas can be eaten for breakfast, as an afternoon snack, or while preparing an asado [barbecue]. They are made at bakeries and restaurants or in home kitchens and sold in baskets on buses. For the most part, they are to be eaten with your hands. If you want to use a knife and fork, go right ahead, but you will look just as silly as someone who eats pizza that way. You want to eat them hot, almost right out of the oven or frying pan, though you must be careful as the contents can be quite hot, especially when there are stewed fillings.”

The book contains lots of different empanada recipes, including Galician-style tuna empanadas, “closest in form to the ones made by Galician immigrants who arrived in cities throughout the New World”; a Bolivian style version of the dish, filled with beef, peas and potatoes; dogfish empanadas, commonly served on the beaches of Venezuela; and potato and peanut empanadas, which come from Popayán, “one of the hubs of Colombian gastronomy.”


The Latin American Cookbook
The Latin American Cookbook

All the recipes in our new book include directions on making the right dough for each empanada, though the authors do admit that Latin American supermarkets stock decent discs of frozen empanada dough, which are handy if you have some leftovers you want to make into one of these tasty little turnovers at short notice. To get all the recipes, as well as well-informed context, explaining how empanadas fit in alongside other aspects of Latin American cookery, order a copy of The Latin American Cookbook here.