Day 290: A spotter’s guide to empanadas

Overland miles: 13652 Bus hours: 404.25 Empanadar: 94

The regular reader of this humble travel correspondence will be aware that for some time I have been banging on about empanadas. The more observant one will have noticed that since we reached South America, something called an ‘Empanadar’ has appeared on the daily stats heading each post. At least one reader (they’re all probably the same one if we’re to be completely honest) has specifically asked us to explain what an empanada is. Well, I’ll put that reader out of his or her misery: it’s a hand-held pie or pasty – the lion in the street-snack kingdom – ubiquitous across the continent but distinctive species of which are prevalent in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru.

As a street food aficionado I made it my mission to go one better than our record of consuming 73 tacos across Central America, by hunting and consuming every breed of these tasty little critters that crossed our epicurean radar (our ’empanadar’, if you will). It’s been a long time coming, but as a result we are able to present a comprehensive guide to spotting empanadas, and accompany it with illustrations of each breed in its natural habitat, so you can track them down in the wild and devour them on your own travels. Don’t thank us: thank the bakers of Sudamerica.

Day 134: Pasteles, Guane, Colombia

Less well known than its heavier, baked sister, pasteles tend to be found in small restaurants and corner cafes in plazas across the Santander region of Colombia. Thriving in hot climates, they develop golden-brown, mottled jackets after a short period of gestation in a deep fat fryer. Caught fresh from a sea of boiling fat, pasteles are humanely knocked senseless with a number of spicy ajis before being devoured whole.

Pasteles escape the heat on Guane’s main plaza, Colombia

Day 188: Empanadas al Horno, El Calafate, Argentina

We spotted our very first empanadas back in 2010 on our honeymoon and quickly realised Argentina is the Serengeti of the empanada kingdom. So when we visited El Calafate during our exploration of Patagonia at the beginning of the year, we knew we would be in for a treat. Top of our spotters’ checklist: empanadas al horno. Easily identified by their distinctive crimped and egg-washed coats, al horno pies roam in large batches, relaxing occasionally in hot ovens. These magnificently meaty creatures were sleeping gracefully on the counter of Fonda El Parilledo, unaware that a big game hunter was in their midst.

A herd of majestic empanadas al horno at rest

 Day 214: Sellodito Vegetariano, Pucon, Chile

Selloditos or ‘little envelopes’ are native to central and northern Chile. A real heavyweight in the snack jungle, their name belies their enormous size. Thought to be distant relatives of the English Cornish pasty, the wild sellodito is hard to spot due to the very specific baking cycles of its Chilean habitat. Whilst the more common sellodito pino is renowned for its fine grass fed flesh, boiled egg, raisins and the occasional olive, this specimen’s smooth and glossy hide hid an unusual feature: vegetables.

A yawning sellodito vegetariano in captivity

Days 249 & 254: Salteñas, Potosi and Sucre, Bolivia

They’re empanadas Jim, but not as we know them. Salteñas are an indisputable Bolivian mash-up of identity: part deliciously sweet girl-treat, part full-fat man pie, all sexy beast. Salteñas de carne, such as the one Clare is pictured catching at the legendary Restaurante Malpartidas in Potosi, are identified by their dark brown skin, seamed head and sun-baked tomatoey taste. Saltenas de pollo combine shredded chicken, creamy egg and raisins, are seamed at the feet and display a light, sugar-speckled jacket. Saltenas are very much early morning creatures: catch them while you can.

Salteñas de pollo roll around in sugar to protect themselves from the heat

Day 258: Empanada Frita, La Paz, Bolivia

The docile, lugubrious empanada frita – with its distinctive lumpy hide – can be spotted in the food markets and street stalls of La Paz. Plumper breeds of the fried empanada tend to be the tastiest, and it goes without saying that they need to be consumed when caught straight from the fryer. This specimen came from a freshly fried batch of cheese empanadas, which it is customary to sprinkle liberally with icing sugar.

Empanadas fritas are docile and easily caught

Day 283: Taqueños, Cusco, Peru

Taqueños to Peruvians – tequeños to Venezuelans – are harder to sight being the smallest member of the empanada family, but (according to Jovian’s 10th pie theory) are all the more adorable and delicious for it. The innards of Taqueños generally consist of queso blanco (white cheese), and their habitats are often rich in guacamole.  A pair of you should be able to put away ten on one hunt.

A pair of predatory spoons circle a flock of nervous taqueños

Day 288: Empanada Dulce, Cusco, Peru

More strictly a member of the galleta (biscuit) family, empanada dulce is the rarest of all species, spending all but one week of the year – Semana Santa or Holy Week – in hibernation. Coquettish and sleek with an exotically multi-coloured plumage, the flat-faced sweet empanada is an Easter sighting not to be missed by true pie lovers.

Empanada dulce can be spotted only one week of the whole year

Day 290: Empanadas Blanditas, Pisac, Peru

I do hope I’m not boring you too much. Empanadas are literally my favourite street-food in the whole world. I could go on about them for hours. Even Clare’s a pretty obsessed piespotter. Which is part if not all of the reason we took a day-trip from Cusco to the tiny corn-farming village of Pisac in Peru’s Sacred Valley. There were two main reasons actually, and they we both provided by the excellent El Horno Colonial (The Colonial Oven). First, they keep guinea pigs in castles. That’s something to be seen. Second, they have a very, very large oven, where they round up and bake soft bread-based empanadas. You also have to see this oven, which puts any number of flash pizzerias to shame.

They were served piping hot, as you would expect having just been whipped out of their unique warren – that almighty monster of an oven. Their soft and fluffy coats came apart easily to reveal perfectly melted intestines of cheese and tomato. We washed them down with Pisac’s main, if not only, export: a cold glass of juiced purple corn (known as chicha morada). Right, that’s quite enough about empanadas, and I promise not to bring them up again. Soon. I suppose you want to see some little guinea pigs running about in their own personal castle now, don’t you? Ok, here you go:

Ain’t that the cutest thing? They all get eaten in the next post. You have been warned.

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