Savory empanadas are the unsung heroes of Latin America.
They are always there for you when you’re craving something that is just a little bit more extravagant than a taco or a sandwich—yet still as satisfying. They are ultra-convenient, portable, and not to mention affordable. Most importantly, they are versatile and delicious enough to have for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as an afternoon or late night snack.
According to the Spanish scholar Dr. Susana Barberis in her book, “Historia de la Empanada Criolla,” empanadas are thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain in the 1500s. (Hence the name, em-pan-ada, which means to cover with bread). The first ever recorded empanada was one made with seafood in 1520 and from there, it spread throughout the Americas, the Caribbean, and The Philippines.
Here is a guide to some of our favorite empanadas from Mexico, Central, and South America.
These empanadas have become the posterchild of empanadas across Latin America. If you see a standalone restaurant specializing in empanadas in the US, it will most likely be done in the style of Argentina. All it takes is just a few days anywhere in Argentina to see how much of a staple it is there. While the styles and fillings vary from region to region, an exemplary empanada should be flaky, burnished with some spots on the crust being darker than others, and jam-packed with either ground beef, spinach, hard-boiled eggs, or cheese. If in Argentina, they are as convenient to order in or have for delivery as pizza is in the States. Similar styles exist in Chile.
The immediate difference with savory Mexican empanadas compared to the rest of them on this list is that these are all made from corn masa instead of wheat flour. If you’re in the coasts of Mexico, from Sinaloa to Jalisco, empanadas will be filled with everything from chopped shrimp, smoked fish, and crab. The dough will have a little bit of seafood stock in it as well, and it will be fried. If you’re in the south like Puebla or Oaxaca, empanadas will be more of a variation on the quesadilla, filled with quesillo (Oaxacan-style unpasteurized string cheese) and squash blossoms, huitlacoche (corn truffles), a guisado. In Oaxaca, they have a tasty deep-fried masa empanada filled with their yellow mole and chicken.
Sweet plantain are mashed and made into a dough to make the base for some of the most delicious empanada variations on the planet. The dough is shaped into half-moons, stuffed with either black beans, cheese, ground meat, and then dropped in the fryer until golden brown and crispy on the edges. They are typically topped with crema, salsa, and eaten as a sweet and savory appetizer before a meal. This variation on the empanadas are also called molotes on the other side of the border in Oaxaca.
Also known as pastelillo de carne, this empanada variation is on the smaller side of the turnover spectrum. Though, what they lack in size they make up for in flavor. They are usually filled with a ground beef picadillo stew with potatoes and olives and deep-fried. The dough is much thinner than the rest of the empanadas, which makes for a vastly delicious crunchier texture than a lot of other empanada variations.