Empanadas are retracing the steps of the taco and quesadilla. Once confined to the Hispanic table, they are now gracing urban menus nationally.
 Empanadas and Tamales
A few words about the empanada.The name refers to the “pan“, the wheat bread that they usually are made of. The word does not mean “breaded”: that would be “apanado“. Way back when they were unknown here, we used to explain that they were a kind of savory turnover.
The filling can be pork, beef, chicken, or cheese. They can be baked or fried. See below for the boiled or steamed. I am sure someone somewhere makes fish empanadas  but it has escaped me in my travels.
The filling varies from country to country. The difference is often in the sweetness. South American empanadas, the Chilean, Argentinian, and Bolivian (called a salteña) are distinguished by an intriguing touch of sweetness.
Another difference is in the texture of the filling (the “gigote“). The Dominican beef empanadas are filled with more finely ground beef. It seems that this may be a Caribbean thing; they are very similar to Jamaican patties, although the shell is thicker and less flaky than the Jamaican version.
A very popular empanada is the cheese empanada which is usually “de sal” (savory) but often they are eaten with sugar or honey.
What is a tamal? A tamal can be filed with cheese but if meat is used, it usually is made with pork rather than with beef. Also corn, rather than bread, dough is used for the shell of the tamal. Furthermore, there is an underlying Amerindian influence in the tamal which stretches from Mexico to South America in that the corn flour is made of ground hominy, not regular corn. Hominy is corn that has been “cooked” or “peeled” with a mild caustic, like lye. The influence extends to the grits of the southern US. Another difference is that the tamal is boiled or steamed, originally (even now in urban USA) wrapped in a banana leaf.
Finallly the tamal in Puerto Rico, boiled and wrapped in a banana leaf, is different in two ways: it is not stuffed wheat dough, nor stuffed corn dough; it is ground plaintain (the big less sweet cousin of the banana), and it is not called a tamal. It is called a “pastel“, even though in most of the Spanish speaking world, a “pastel” is cake. De gustos y sabores, se callan los doctores. Rough translation: Go figure!
More later on Colombian and Venezuelan arepas, and Salvadorean pupusas, which are made on a grill.
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