Empanadas are certainly among life’s simplest — and tastiest — pleasures. The name “empanada” is taken from the Spanish and Portuguese verb empanar, which means “to wrap in bread,” which essentially sums up what you get: anything from meats to cheeses to veggies, (often a combination of all of the above) stuffed inside a rich dough, then baked or fried to create a mouth-watering snack. But what many people don’t realize is that the styles of empanadas vary from country to country in South and Latin America. Every country will defend their empanada as best, and we’re certainly not going to get involved in crowning a champ. Decide for yourself instead, by trying all of these empanada variations in South and Central America before you die.
Argentina and Uruguay
Argentina is the South American country perhaps most associated with the empanada, at least when it comes to visitors from around the world. Uruguay’s proximity to the east of Argentina has allowed for similar, but not exact, empanada preparation.
The Argentinian staple is a simple one and an ode to the cattle raising pastures of the country. Empanadas here are often built around one primary stuffing: ground beef, perhaps spiced with some cumin, typically served as an appetizer. This recipe also features hard boiled egg and green onions.
Here’s an empanada perfect for dessert and popular in both Argentina and Uruguay. Crispy dough is stuffed with dulce de leche (a sweet milk common in both countries), or other sweet and creamy fillings. They are then fried, topped with a dusting of sugar or apple jam, and served.
Colombia and Venezuela
Colombians tend to get a little saucy, adding what’s called an aji sauce to their empanadas to complement the meat. They also may spice them up with cilantro or scallions, and add a bit of vinegar, salt, or lemon juice to mix. These are common varieties in the two countries:
Yuca empanadas swap out the traditional corn flour for yuca, or cassava. On the inside, you’ll find everything you’re used to, but the cassava allows for extra crispiness, especially when deep fried. Eating one of these is like biting into a corn dog at the county fair — with a Colombian twist.
Similar to yucca empanadas, plantain empanadas are made from dough that is boiled and mashed, stuffed with fillings, and then deep fried. The result is one of the crispiest empanadas found anywhere, perfect for an appetizer or as a quick bite from a street vendor. You’ll find these in Colombia as well as around the Caribbean.
Corn flour empanadas
Wheat flour empanadas are less popular in Colombia and Venezuela, where residents prefer theirs made from ground corn flour and then fried. On the inside, you may find ground beef, potatoes, and/or a mixture of vegetables. If you come across empanadas de cazón on a menu in Venezuela, know what you’re signing up for: shark empanadas.
Pastel de queijo
This Brazilian specialty is a square or half-moon shaped pastry often stuffed with cheese. The dough is very dry, making the pastel de queijo very flaky but ensuring crispiness in every bit. You may also see them stuffed with hearts of palm, minced beef, or prawn. Though not a full-on empanada, it’s the Brazilians’ closest comparison.
Ecuadorians make empanadas from both corn seasoning and flour. Their style can be similar to the Colombians when it comes to using aji sauces and herbs like cilantro or scallions, though their aji sauce may contain additional ingredients like red pepper or tomato.
Empanadas de viento
Empanadas of the wind, as this variety is known in Ecuador, looks a bit like a potsticker. Light, fatty dough is wrapped around the filling (typically cheese) and then deep fried. They are dusted with sugar prior to being served to add a dose of sweetness, despite often being served as an appetizer.
Empanadas de arroz
The dominant stuffing in empanadas de arroz is rice. Other fillings may be used as well to add flavor and make the finished product sweeter and/or heartier. This variety is typically deep-fried, a soothing and crispy complement to the starchy filling.
Bolivians consistently tend to combine meats including beef or chicken with a veggie mixture of peas, carrots, and olives, and occasionally throw in a quail’s egg or a few raisins for added awesomeness.
These meaty wheat flour empanadas contain a hot soupy filling that, if not eaten carefully, may leave a nice burn on your tongue. But this shouldn’t discourage you from eating them right out of the oven — they are a meal in themselves, stuffed with everything from egg and meats to potatoes and peas. Enjoy them first thing in the morning when in Bolivia and start your day off right.
Chileans often add minced onion to a ground beef mixture for empanada stuffing. Empanadas are wildly popular for Fiestas Patrias, the national days of celebration, on September 18 and 19, as Chileans widely label them as their national dish.
Empanadas al horno
Empanadas al horno is the most common variety served in Chile. The country even has a name for the standard filling — pino, a blend of minced meat, onion, olives, raisins, and a hard-cooked egg.
Cativias, a fried empanada made of yuca, holds its roots in the Dominican Republic. These are small and greasy, typically filled with onion, tomatoes, and ground beef.
This variety from Mexico is doughy and flaky, made from a fine wheat flour that quickly gives way to pulque, the alcoholic fermented sap of the maguey, which is seasoned with salt, egg, and lard.
Empanadas de plátanos
In Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, locals prefer empanadas de plátanos, a deep fried take on the empanada made from plantains. Filling varies by country. El Salvadorians, for example, typically serve empanadas de plátanos as a dessert, thus using sweeter ingredients than Nicaraguans or Costa Ricans.