For those of you who aren’t familiar with empanadas, they’re pure happiness fried or baked into a pastry. Of course, this is from a full-blooded Colombian, whose country is nothing short of obsessed with this national snack. Empanadas to us are like French fries to Americans; we eat them as side dishes, snacks, appetizers, and at any meal of the day. No Colombian bakery or restaurant can proudly hang its flag in their shop without them, and every family has its own beloved recipe.
Empanadas can be first attributed to the Spanish, who brought them to Latin America and the Philippines. The Spanish fill wheat pastry with cod, tuna or chorizo and either fry or bake the pastry to golden brown perfection. In Colombia, however, we use a corn-based dough and utilize a variety of fillings, although the most popular is beef and potato. We almost always fry our empanadas instead of baking them. One more key component to a great Colombian empanada: the aji. Also known as picante, aji is Colombian hot sauce. It’s made with vinegar, lime juice, green onions, cilantro and a combination of peppers. Aji can nearly always be found tableside at any Colombian restaurant or passed down as an heirloom recipe in people’s homes. Simply take your first bite of hot, flaky empanada, then pour this spicy concoction into the gap you left. However you choose to do it, the combination of aji and empanada is a must. The heat and acidity of aji cuts the tasty grease from the fried corn and the salty, meaty filling, all of which are an easy road to snack food nirvana. Did I mention that empanadas make great drunk end-of-night food?
What’s most endearing about empanadas to me, and perhaps many other Colombians, is what they mean to our heritage. Colombia, like all Latin countries, is very family-oriented and passes down cultural and culinary traditions from generation to generation. Every Colombian might have a favorite bakery, fast food joint or restaurant where they can recommend the best empanadas (in their humble opinions); but when asked about their all-time favorite, it’s guaranteed to be their mother’s, aunt’s, grandmother’s, or maybe even father’s recipe. We’ve popularized this dish so much that it’s become easily the most recognizable Colombian dish. That said, it’s nice to see Colombia, scrutinized as it is at times, maintaining such an identifiable tradition, even if it’s just a dish. Needless to say, Colombians everywhere have a lot to be thankful for on this day of our independence, and I’d like to think that the empanada is only but a small detail of that. Que viva Colombia!