Skip to main content

Exploring Empanadas: Anthropology of the Tapas Treat

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Freshly made empanadas.

Freshly made empanadas.

From A (Arabia) to Z (Zanzibar)

One thousand years ago, the poet Ishaq ibn Ibrahim-al-Mausili penned an ode to the sambusak, a Persian meat-filled pastry that could be prebaked and stored as on-the-go nourishment for hungry travelers.

Over the next 300 years, knowledge of spices, silk, and treasures in distant lands shifted from fable to fact. Muslim merchants carried the sambusak, samosa-like hand pies, along the ancient trade routes—east to India and west to North Africa. And that was just the beginning. The popularity of the sambusak continued to spread as each area adapted the pastry to take advantage of locally sourced ingredients.

The Sambusak Reaches Iberia

When the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, they brought customs and traditions with them; as you know, a significant part of every culture is the foods they eat. So, in the 8th century A.D., the sambusak became the Spanish empanada. (The word empanada comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which means to cover with bread.)

The empanada traveled with the conquistadors to the New World, where it was quickly adopted and became a popular part of Argentine cuisine. From there, it spread throughout the Western world, with each region adapting it to their tastes, preferences, and local ingredients.

Many Variations

Some used butter in the pastry while others favored beef fat. Corn masa often replaced wheat flour, while yucca or plantain appeared in the Caribbean empanada as the starch of choice.

Empanada Flavors and Fillings, by Country

  • Argentina: ground beef spiced with cumin, onion, green olives, and raisins
  • Belize: masa (corn) pastry filled with fish, chicken, or beans
  • Bolivia: rich stew-like combination of beef or chicken, potato, peas, carrots, and quail egg
  • Brazil: chicken, beef, or shrimp; cheese, olives, and heart of palm
  • Cape Verde: spicy tuna fish
  • Chile: beef and onion, with onion being the greater part of the filling
  • Colombia: corn (not wheat) flour pastry, fried and filled with rice, beef, hard-boiled eggs
  • Cuba: seasoned meats (beef or chicken)
  • Ecuador: peas, potatoes, steamed meat
  • India: mostly sweet fillings (coconut, cashews)
  • Indonesia: spicy skipjack tuna
  • Marianas Islands: toasted rice, red chili, garlic, and annatto
  • Philippines: ground beef, pork or chicken; potatoes, onions, raisins
  • Sardinia: lamb, potatoes, sundried tomato, garlic, saffron
  • Sicily: almonds, walnuts, chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and minced beef
  • Venezuela: a duplicate of the empanada of Colombia; corn flour, deep-fried
Empanadas can be baked . . .

Empanadas can be baked . . .

. . . or fried. The choice is yours.

. . . or fried. The choice is yours.

Basic Empanada Dough


  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons ice water


  1. Combine flour, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl; make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.
  2. Stir together oil and water; pour into well. Toss all ingredients gently with a fork to combine. If mixture seems dry add up to one more tablespoon of ice water.
  3. Knead on lightly floured surface about 8 to 10 strokes to form a cohesive dough. Press into a disk shape; wrap in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.
  4. Remove dough from refrigerator. Cut into 8 equal-sized wedges and roll each wedge into a ball.
  5. Roll out each ball of dough into a 6-inch circle on lightly floured surface.
  6. Fill and crimp. If baking, preheat oven to 400°F. Place filled empanadas on parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until lightly browned.
  7. If frying, heat about 2 cups canola or other neutral oil in heavy pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches of 2 or 3 at a time (don't crowd the pan) add empanadas to oil and fry until golden, about 30 seconds per side. Place on cooling racks lined with paper towels to drain. Serve warm.
Crimp the edge to seal in the filling.

Crimp the edge to seal in the filling.

Recipes in This Article


  • Sausage and egg breakfast empanadas
  • Beef and potato empanadas
  • Chicken and olive empanadas
  • Shrimp empanadas
Scroll to Continue

Read More From Delishably


  • Vegetable empanadas
  • Spinach-artichoke empanadas
  • Potato and goat cheese empanadas
  • Avocado, black beans, and queso fresco empanadas


  • Salted dulce de leche dessert empanadas
  • Rosemary-infused strawberry empanadas
  • Dulce de leche churro empanadas
Sausage and egg breakfast empanadas.

Sausage and egg breakfast empanadas.

Sausage and Egg Breakfast Empanadas

Mom always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. So why do we eat cold cereal and toast? That's pretty much how I start my day Sunday through Friday. But on Saturday, I have an extra cup of coffee, linger over the newspaper (with a kitty on my lap, of course), and luxuriate with a meal that always includes eggs (I allow myself one), meat of some kind (turkey bacon is my fave, but I won't say no to turkey sausage), and potatoes or some other wonderful starchy carb-laden gift from my pantry.

These breakfast empanadas by Melissa certainly fit the bill.

Beef and potato empanadas.

Beef and potato empanadas.

Beef and Potato Empanadas

Jonathan Melendez is an author, cook, baker, blogger, food photographer...and everything I want to be when I grow up.

His food blog is amazing!

He shows us step-by-step (with lots of photos) how to make amazing food. And here he is sharing his gift for making beef and potato empanadas. Seriously, you must look at this post! He makes his own dough, a savory filling (and acknowledges that you could use ground turkey or chicken in lieu of the beef), and guides you through all the things you need to do to make this in your own kitchen. It's almost like having him right there at your side.

Chicken and Olive Empanadas


  • Basic empanada dough (see above)
  • 1/2 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup diced tomato
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons dried currants
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped green olives stuffed with pimiento
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs


  1. Place all ingredients EXCEPT the dry bread crumbs in a large skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until the chicken is cooked, stirring occasionally.
  2. Allow chicken mixture to cool slightly then place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until coarsely ground. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in dry bread crumbs.
  3. Refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour.
Shrimp empanadas.

Shrimp empanadas.

Shrimp Empanadas

Andrea lives in Brazil and is the author of the blog TravelEatTell. Her recipe for shrimp empanadas is typical of the dishes made in her country.

Vegetable empanadas.

Vegetable empanadas.

Vegetable Empanadas

Jamie Geller expends more energy in one day than I have had in a lifetime. She is a published cookbook author, has her own magazine, creates recipes and videos, has 6 (six!) children, and manages the blog She's been called the Queen of Kosher, the Jewish Rachel Ray.

Her veggie empanadas are tasty, fresh, fast, and healthy.

Spinach-artichoke empanadas.

Spinach-artichoke empanadas.

Spinach-Artichoke Empanadas

Lyuba says "I'm the cook, photographer and author behind Will Cook For Smiles...created in February, 2011 as a way for me to share recipes with friends and family. It started as a hobby blog that saw about 20 visits a week, most of them from my family, and turned into a successful recipe website where I share my culinary adventures with thousands readers a day. This site features my original recipes and mouthwatering photos."

Lyuba's photos are inspirational, and I think you'll love her spinach-artichoke hand pies.

Potato and goat cheese empanadas.

Potato and goat cheese empanadas.

Potato and Goat Cheese Empanadas

Honest Cooking is an international online culinary magazine that hopes to change the face of online food media. They feature over 900 of the world’s most interesting food & beverage writers, bloggers, photographers and Chefs. If, like me, you are a foodie, you could honestly lose hours of your life on this website.

When I began to research the topic of empanadas, I knew I would want to strike a balance between meat-filled and vegetarian recipes. That quest led me to Honest Cooking, and this wonderful creation. Potato and Goat Cheese Empanadas, by Rachel Hartley. This take on empanadas is Peruvian inspired, and the accompanying recipe for avocado chimichurri is an added bonus.

Avocado, black bean, and queso fresco empanadas.

Avocado, black bean, and queso fresco empanadas.

Avocado-Black Bean-Queso Fresco Empanadas

Analida is my kindred spirit. She loves to share ethnic stories, foods, and a bit of history for those who visit her blog She created and shares with us a wonderful vegetarian Avocado-Black Beans-Queso Fresco Empanada.

Salted dulce de leche empanadas.

Salted dulce de leche empanadas.

Salted Dulce de Leche Empanadas

One of the contributors to is Sonia Mendez Garcia. She created a swoon-worthy sweet-salty dessert empanada that I know you will love.

Rosemary-infused strawberry empanadas.

Rosemary-infused strawberry empanadas.

Rosemary-Infused Strawberry Empanadas

Oh, be still, my beating heart! Fresh strawberries are sitting on my kitchen counter as I write this, and my rosemary bush is in desperate need of clipping. I'm pretty sure these Rosemary-Infused Strawberry Empanadas will be today's dessert course.

Dulce de leche churro empanadas.

Dulce de leche churro empanadas.

Dulce de Leche Churro Empanadas

I can't think of a better way to end this article. This is truly the grand finale, the trifecta. The flavor of churros, plus dulce de leche, AND a Mexican chocolate dipping sauce all in one yummy place?? Ohmygoodness!

Thank you for this amazing recipe for Dulce De Leche Churros!

© 2017 Linda Lum

Related Articles