My Spanish friend said recently that empanadas are, for her, the most heavenly of simple pleasures. This prompted me to try one last week when I happened upon a Spanish delicatessen with “freshly baked empanadas” cheerfully scrawled on a little blackboard. Well…from the first tantalising bite I knew what she meant! The soft tuna filling embraced by crisp golden pastry was a perfect juxtaposition.
I was initially surprised, however, to receive a large triangle of pie and not the pastie-esque pastry I had expected. This prompted an investigation!
I discovered that the traditional ‘empanada Gallega’ (this pie form) originated in Galicia, Spain during the period of Moorish invasions. Bordered by extensive coastline, Galicia is at the heart of the Spanish fishing industry; reflected in empanadas via typical fishy fillings of tuna, sardines or cod in a tomato, onion and garlic sauce.
A priceless creation! With pastry covering hearty fillings, Galicians created a portable dish for the region’s many fishermen during their voyages. Here cuisine and regional identity are tightly intertwined: so intrinsic to their region, empanadas may never have eventuated without Galicia’s dependence on fishing and consequent need for transportable food. While pies are common throughout Spain, only those of Galicia are ‘empanadas’. They are hence regionally symbolic, their name conjuring up the area and its inhabitants.
Penelope Casas writes in ‘The Foods and Wines of Spain’ that Galicians are considered “secretive and aloof”, just as empanadas conceal their fillings from view. Perhaps their uniqueness to Galicia results from inherently representing the region’s identifying characters.
Judging by my erroneous expectation of Spanish empanadas, it seems that they’re rarely served traditionally in Melbourne or indeed globally. Instead we usually see the popular turnover version from Latin America, similar to Spanish empanadillas.
So then…have traditional empanadas been lost? Well maybe they’re just a kind of hidden treasure. After all, if the Galicians are so secretive, they wouldn’t want to give them away!