Empanadas are a type of stuffed bread or pastry that is popular in many Latin American countries. But are they originally from Mexico? The short answer is no, empanadas did not originate in Mexico. However, they have become an important part of Mexican cuisine and culture over time.
What are empanadas?
Empanadas are pastries made from dough that is stuffed with a variety of fillings before being baked or fried. The dough can be made from flour, cornmeal, or plantains depending on the region. Common fillings include meat, cheese, beans, vegetables, or sweet fillings like fruit or sugar.
Empanadas are formed into a half-moon or circle shape with the filling enclosed inside the dough. They can be of various sizes from bite-sized to large handheld pastries. The exterior is golden brown and flaky or soft depending on the type of dough and cooking method used.
Where do empanadas come from?
Most historians agree that empanadas originated in Galicia, a region in northwest Spain. The name “empanada” comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning “to wrap or coat in bread.”
From Spain, empanadas spread to Latin America during the colonization of the Americas. Each country adopted them and created their own fillings and variations based on local cuisine. For example:
- Argentina – beef empanadas are popular
- Chile – empanadas de pino with beef, onion, hard-boiled egg, olives, and raisins
- Colombia – empanadas with potato, ground beef, chicken, cheese, or corn
- Ecuador – empanadas de viento, fried and served with sugar
So while empanadas themselves did not originate in Mexico, they have become an integral part of Mexican food culture over the centuries.
Are empanadas popular in Mexico?
Yes, empanadas are extremely popular in Mexico and can be found all over the country from street food stalls to restaurants to home cooking. Some key facts about Mexican empanadas:
- Flour tortillas are often used instead of bread dough.
- Fillings may include minced meat, shredded chicken, cheese, beans, or potatoes.
- They are commonly fried but can also be baked.
- Salsa, guacamole, or sour cream are typical accompaniments.
- Sweet empanadas filled with fruit or cajeta (caramel) are also enjoyed.
- Empanadas are eaten as snacks or appetizers but also for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Certain regions of Mexico also have their own popular variations such as:
- Northern Mexico – deep fried beef empanadas
- Southern Mexico – empanadas campechanas with chicken, tomato, onion, olives
- Jalisco – empanadas de camarón with shrimp
Are empanadas considered traditional Mexican food?
While empanadas did not originate in Mexico, they have become deeply rooted in Mexican cuisine over the past centuries. Here are some reasons why empanadas can be considered a traditional Mexican food:
- They have been made and eaten in Mexico for hundreds of years since the colonial era.
- Mexicans have put their own unique twist on empanadas by using corn tortillas and local fillings.
- They are found everywhere from street food to celebrations to family meals.
- Iconic regional empanadas have developed based on local tastes.
- They have been passed down through generations as beloved recipes.
- Empanadas are tied to Mexican history, culture, and identity.
However, some people may argue that because empanadas originated outside of Mexico, they cannot be considered truly Mexican. This controversy mirrors broader debates about the nature of Mexican cuisine, which blends indigenous, Spanish, and other cultural influences.
How do Mexicans typically serve and eat empanadas?
Empanadas are a versatile food for all occasions in Mexico. They can be prepared both simply and elaborately depending on the context.
- Street food – Individual empanadas fried and served in paper napkins or on plates alongside salsa for dipping.
- Parties – Platters of miniature empanadas as appetizers.
- Restaurants – Gourmet empanadas incorporated into multi-course meals.
- Home cooking – Empanadas as the main dish or as part of a larger Mexican spread.
Empanadas are eaten any time of day in Mexico. They can be an on-the-go breakfast for laborers, a mid-day snack, or dinner along with sides like rice and beans. They are commonly eaten with hands but utensils can also be used.
Beyond individual consumption, empanadas also play a role in Mexican celebrations, festivals, and special occasions:
- Christmas – empanadas with sweet fillings
- Day of the Dead – empanadas shaped or decorated like skulls
- Children’s birthday parties
What ingredients are used in authentic Mexican empanadas?
Since empanadas are adaptable to local tastes, Mexican empanadas recipes can vary greatly. However, some classic ingredients commonly used include:
- Flour tortillas
- Corn tortillas
- Masa harina (corn flour)
- Wheat flour
- Lard or oil
- Ground or shredded beef
- Refried beans
- Cheese – queso fresco, Oaxaca, Cotija
- Sauteed onion, garlic
- Chiles – jalapeño, serrano, ancho
- Seasonings – cilantro, oregano, cumin
- Fruit – apple, pineapple, guava, berries
- Cajeta (caramel)
- Cinnamon sugar
There are countless possible fillings beyond these common examples that utilize local Mexican ingredients. The folds of the empanada dough help contain the savory or sweet interior.
Are there vegetarian empanadas in Mexican cuisine?
Yes, there are many delicious vegetarian and vegan empanadas found in Mexico. Since empanadas can contain almost any filling, they are easy to adapt to vegetarian diets by excluding meat and using plant-based fillings. Some examples of vegetarian empanada fillings include:
- Refried or whole beans
- Queso fresco or Oaxaca cheese
- Mashed potato
- Sauteed mushrooms
- Caramelized onions
- Chiles and salsa
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potato
These can be mixed and matched or combined with herbs and spices for flavor. Vegetarian empanadas are common street food fare for Lent when many Mexicans abstain from meat.
What are some key regional variations of Mexican empanadas?
While empanadas from northern Mexico often feature fried wheat flour dough and beef fillings, other regions have developed their own beloved takes. Some examples include:
|Thicker, chewier corn masa dough. Fillings with mole and regional cheeses.
|Plantain dough. Fillings with fresh seafood and olives.
|Empanadas de cazón with shark meat. Recados spice blend in fillings.
|Empanadas tapatias baked with guava paste and cheese. Mini street empanadas.
These are just a few examples that demonstrate the diversity of empanadas across Mexico. Every region puts its own spin based on the local culture, history, and ingredients.
What types of chiles and salsas pair well with Mexican empanadas?
The rich fillings of Mexican empanadas pair beautifully with bright, fresh salsas and chiles. Here are some recommended pairings:
- Beef empanadas – Salsa verde with tomatillo and serrano chiles
- Chicken empanadas – Roasted chili-lime salsa
- Cheese empanadas – Salsa taquera with guajillo and ancho chiles
- Bean empanadas – Pico de gallo salsa fresca
- Potato empanadas – Salsa brava spicy roasted salsa
- Seafood empanadas – Chili-mango salsa or salsa habanero
- Vegetable empanadas – Tomatillo or charred salsa de árbol
Chiles like chipotle, jalapeño, poblano, and ancho can also be chopped up and sprinkled on top of empanadas before serving for extra heat and flavor. Mexican crema, queso fresco, and guacamole also pair well with empanadas.
Where can you find the best empanadas in Mexico?
It’s hard to single out the “best” empanadas in Mexico since so many regions have their own specialties. However, here are some highly regarded spots sampling empanadas across Mexico:
- El Moro – Classic fried beef empanadas since 1935 in Mexico City.
- Chetito’s – Baked empanadas with many savory and sweet fillings in Oaxaca.
- La Ideal – Historic Puebla shop serving empanadas with mole and chili rajas.
- Fonda Don Chon – Street empanadas on Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan coast.
- La Tapatia – Beloved Guadalajara bakery known for empanadas tapatias.
Searching out regional empanada specialties at food stalls, cafes, and restaurants is a delicious way to explore Mexico’s diverse cuisine. But even simple homemade empanadas can be just as satisfying.
How can you make easy empanadas at home?
Making empanadas at home may sound daunting but it can be easy and fun with some simple shortcuts:
- Use store-bought tortillas or dough – No need to make masa or dough from scratch, just use fresh or frozen tortillas.
- Choose simple fillings – Refried beans, cheese, sautéed veggies, or shredded chicken are easy options.
- Add store-bought salsas for flavor.
- Fry instead of bake for quick cooking and a crispy crust.
- Experiment with different shapes like half moons, rectangles, or triangles.
- Start small with mini or cocktail-sized empanadas.
With ready-made components and simple assembly, empanadas can be surprisingly easy to DIY for weeknight dinners or casual get-togethers with friends and family.
Empanadas have become an iconic handheld food in Mexican cuisine and culture. Though not originally from Mexico, they have been enthusiastically adopted and transformed over the centuries. Mexicans have personalized them with the flavors, ingredients, and traditions of their regions. Empanadas can be simple or gourmet and are enjoyed everywhere – from street stalls to family meals to celebrations.
Though the origins may be debated, empanadas are now firmly established in Mexico. They exemplify the blends of Spanish, indigenous, and immigrant influences that shape Mexican food identity. With their versatility, accessibility, and appeal, empanadas have earned a permanent place in Mexican culinary heritage.