The empanada story

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Empanadas by Eddy Milfort
Empanadas by Eddy Milfort

Served out of styrofoam boxes or from behind steel counters, there is no doubt that Bogotá’s favorite snack is the empanada. The “King of the street” rules over all other deep fried foods found in the corner store. Your local tienda would probably file for Chapter 11 if it weren’t for the fact that empanadas are produced everyday across the metropolis to stave off the morning munchies of eight million people.

The empanada has withstood the test of time, even though it is best eaten within hours after its making. Going back in time – and I mean a long time – the empanada we covet today probably had its origins in the biblical era. Looking at Exodus, the chapter in which the inhabitants of Mesopotamia tried to build the Tower of Babel, we cannot be sure what they ate when not squabbling, but the diet of the desert most likely consisted of fire pit lamb and Euphrates-caught fish. Bundles of chickpeas and eggplant mixed with dough began making their own ‘exodus’ west and, as the Ziggurats were reduced to rubble, the “kibbe” rose out of the ashes: oven-fired hot and served with goat’s milk.

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From Persia, the forefathers of the empanada carried their invention to Syria, Egypt and across North Africa until they reached the shores of Mediterranean in the Middle Ages. When the Moors – a mix of former Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians – reached the end of their own long trek crossing into southern Spain, the empanada’s place in history was secure. Almost.

During the Renaissance, the empanada became a novelty among Europeans. While everyone was out on a crusade trying to bring back something from the Holy Land, the simple corn patty thrived at home in outdoor markets and wherever Arabs traded.

The age of invention refined the ingredients of the corn patty and shredded beef replaced boiled greens. Like a good bedtime story involving harems and a thousand and one nights, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition blacklisted the empanada. Having come from Arabia and the product of great culinary minds, the empanada was forced underground and overseas.

It was probably the Italians who brought the empanada to the New World, given the fact that panzerotti, a delicious stuffed pastry from central and southern Italy, would have been part of the diet of ambitious sailors, especially those who sailed from Genoa. In 1492, when Christopher Columbus reached “India” on the shores of the Dominican Republic, he could hardly imagine the impact a calzone would have on the West Indians. They already knew their corn and potatoes, but the conquest marked the dawn of an age of culinary fusion.

Today, empanadas are enjoyed in all shapes and sizes. There are long ones and fat ones, fresh ones and old greasy ones, which although tempting leave a lingering aftertaste of oil on your tongue. In fact, empanadas are a little like history: you enjoyed it when you studied it, but can’t remember all the ingredients. And with every bite of an empanada there is a shred of its storied past, the pasty taste of Philistines and a gut wrenching connection to Nebuchadnezzar. So respect the history of the empanada and don’t settle for just any fried lump of corn. Go out and search for the empanada that’s right for you. It may take time, but then empanadas aren’t going anywhere soon.

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