The Boy Who Made Empanadas
By Marina Zheng
From the ages of five to eight, I would take the same route home from elementary school. Shanghai in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was not quite like the international economic hub that it has become today. In fact, the Oriental Pearl Tower–a landmark that now defines the city–is only 22-years-old. Its streets were once lined with kids making a few bucks off shining shoes, farmers selling fresh produce, and carts filled with all kinds of street foods. It was down these roads that I would walk, often times stopping to pick up last-minute groceries for my grandmother or to treat myself to a da-bing (or two) with some pocket-change worth of allowance.
I don’t remember how I came to discover the old woman and her deep-fryer stand. All I do remember is that she was there every day for about two years before she mysteriously disappeared one afternoon and ceased to come back. I can’t say for certain where she was from but she was not a native to Shanghai; her accented drawl and tanned-as-leather skin gave that fact away. I can’t even say for certain what it was that she made but can only describe it as a fried pocket of dough filled with all the good things in life; shiitake mushrooms, chives, and pork. My mother used to call it a bao-bing, or pocket-bread. Aside from my grandmother’s cooking, this street food favorite of mine is one of the few things I remember eating as a child. The fragrant aroma of the mushroom juxtaposed with the sharp bite of the chives, all mediated with a generous portion of soft-cooked pork. And not to mention the dough; the perfectly oily, crunchy, and layered dough. It was a food that brought me an immense amount of contentment. As I watched the city slowly change before my eyes with the appearance of more skyscrapers and less shoe-shiners, farmers, and food-carts, the old woman and her deep-fryer stand remained a reassuring constant. Shanghai was transforming too rapidly for my liking, but I didn’t mind so long as the authentic food I ate everyday remained the same.
Years later, I find myself searching for the bao-bing in any and every variation. But nothing came close to the flavorful and crispy version from my childhood. That is, until I traveled to South America. Studying abroad in Argentina introduced me to the world of Latin America, one that is filled with tango, football, and empanadas. The similarities between the bao-bing and the empanada were unparalleled; the crescent shape, fried dough, and delicious filling. Not to mention, both were commonly made by women on the streets of big cities. Eating empanadas gave me the same sense of spontaneity and surprise that I experienced more than a decade ago on the other side of the globe. As I traveled throughout South America and the Caribbean, I turned to them for comfort. They were sources of familiarity in a series of unfamiliar places. Perhaps my liking to empanadas is subconsciously rooted in the fact that they remind me of the bao-bing that I so dearly miss. Perhaps discovering them was a relief from the fear of forgetting one of my favorite childhood memories.
This connection led to a series of questions. How exactly did the empanada find its way to China? Or even on a more fundamental level, what came first? The bao-bing or its South American counterpart? A quick Google search proved to be unsuccessful. “Chinese empanadas” gave me zero hits.
Frustrated that I couldn’t remember more, I phoned my mother. More often than not, her memory served better than mine. As her daughter, this characteristic was both a blessing and a curse.
“Remember that old lady who used to sell the bao-bing near my elementary school?” I asked. “Do you recall where she was from?”
“Ahh yes, I remember her,” my mother replied. She had been a fan of this old woman for always serving me a relatively small sized bao-bing, so as “to not spoil dinner.” “She was from the Philippines, I believe. Or was it Malaysia?”
This made sense. Although empanadas never reached China, it did find its way to Southeast Asia, thanks to the Portuguese explorers who travelled to that part of world in the 16th century on their big ships. They were searching for exotic spices, bringing with them egg tarts and empanadas.
The empanada is a dish with a history as rich as its filling. Its has travelled from the Middle East to Spain to South America, satisfying the hunger of pilgrims and soldiers, locals and foreigners along the way. Its introduction to New York City occurred in the 1960’s, when a large influx of South American immigrants entered the United States. The empanada has a strong cultural significance that addresses subjects such as gender and religion. This short story aims to explore some of these social implications while also retelling the historical narrative of the dish. The Boy Who Made Empanadas was inspired by my research on empanadas as well as my experiences in making it.
The oil hissed angrily as the empanadas were slowly placed into the deep-fryer, at first quietly before the screeching reached an almost unbearable volume.
“Nico! Step back from the fryer. You’ll burn yourself if you’re this close to it.”
The boy, with a messy head of hair and mismatched socks, didn’t seem to care.
“But abuela, I want to see how you make them.”
“Making empanadas is not a job for men,” Abuela said as she scooped out four golden empanadas from the fryer and laid them on a plate to cool off. “Now go outside and play with the rest of the boys.”
Nico begrudgingly obeyed. He grabbed his soccer ball from the closet and headed outside into the sweltering August heat.
Home was a small tenement apartment in Queens that Nico and his grandmother shared with another family of four. It was 1966, just one year after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Amendments gave them–along with thousands of South Americans–the opportunity to immigrate to New York City. Originally from Colombia, Nico and his grandmother were the only two family members in their household to obtain visas. Strapped for cash, they did what they could to make some pocket change and send the money back home. Abuela sold empanadas for a living. Filled with potatoes and beef, her signature empanada de parroquia, or “parish empanada,” was a neighborhood favorite. She often made them back in Colombia and sold them outside churches on Sunday mornings, donating the money to help restore and build new “iglesias” in their town. But there was no donating in this country. Here, it was for survival.
“Hey Nico! Pass the ball,” a high-pitched voice screamed from across the street. It was Bosco, a fellow immigrant from Chile and Nico’s best friend. He kicked the ball as hard as he could, hitting Bosco square in the stomach.
“Sorry! The sunlight makes it hard to see.”
“Yeah, sure. That’s what you always say.”
In that moment, the front door to the apartment opened. Abuela exited, wheeling a cart full of empanadas in front of her.
“I’ll be back in about four hours, Nico,” she said as she struggled down the stairs. It hasn’t been easy, taking care of a twelve-year-old boy while she, herself, was nearing eighty. “If it’s an emergency, you know where to find me.”
As soon as Abuela turned the corner, Nico grabbed Bosco by the arm and led him up the stairs into the apartment.
“Where are we going?”
“Um, I’m not sure if we’re allowed to be here.” Bosco was a frail little boy who wore glasses that were too big for his small face and pants that were too short for his long legs. His mother was an empanada maker as well. In Chile, the dish is called “calduda” and is the national treasure of the country. Four years from now, when Salvador Allende was to be elected president of the country in 1970, he famously spoke of celebrating the success of his revolution not with violence but “with red wine and empanadas.”
“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat. All we’re gonna do is make empanadas,” Nico started rummaging through the cabinets, pulling out ingredients and appliances that he saw his grandmother use for every batch that she cooked. Chile powder, dried oregano, garlic salt, tomato paste, canola oil.
Nobody can blame Nico for his fascination of the dish, not even his grandmother. Making empanadas was in his blood. His family has its ancestral roots in Galicia, Spain. It was in this part of the country that the modern-day empanada was born. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the dish began to appear in Spanish art and literature under a religious context. The Cantinas de Santa María, or Canticles of Holy Mary, spoke of robbers ambushing a group of pilgrims traveling to the Virgin’s shrine and stealing their empanadas. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the stuffed bread began to appear in Spanish recipe collections. The Libro de Cozen, dating back to 1520, categorized the dish as “Lent Food.” Fitting, considering the fact that most Galician empanadas were filled with fish. Nico’s great-great-grandmother was an empanada maker in Galicia. Unlike the ones that Abuela made, hers were filled with seafood, tomatoes, garlic, and onion sauce. When the New World was discovered, Nico’s family uprooted from Galicia and headed to South America along with thousands of other “gallegos” who were fleeing a life of poverty. These immigrants kept their ties to the homeland through food. Two Galician dishes are prepared on Sunday’s or special holidays; one was a kale and white bean broth called “caldo gallego” and the other was the Galician empanada, a large double-crusted pie served in slices or squares. The family recipe has since been adapted to fit a more local preference. Nico has always found it difficult to imagine empanadas as a giant fish pie of some sorts. The crescent-shaped ones that he grew up eating were almost always filled with meats and cheeses.
“We’re going to make empanadas? Do you even know how to do that?” Bosco asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Of course I do! I know everything there is to know about empanadas,” Nico responded while climbing up on a table to reach the pots and pans. “It’s the family business.”
“Oh yeah? Well do you know where they originated from?”
“That’s a silly question. Everybody knows it was invented in Galicia.”
Nico stopped what he was doing and stared down at Bosco. “What do you mean?”
“Few people know that the empanada actually originated in Persia,” Bosco said with a smirk. He prided himself on being more book smart than street smart. “It’s true! Persian came up with the idea of enclosing food with dough to preserve it.”
When Nico kept staring silently in disbelief, Bosco rambled on. “These dough wrapped meals were ideal for the nomad culture of the Muslim empire, since shepherds and soldiers who were traveling could easily carry them. In fact, I think the modern-day version of these pies are called fatays or esfiha and are filled with lamb and—”
“So how did the empanada reach Spain then, huh?” Nico interjected bitterly. He could not accept the fact that the empanada originated in a country that was not native to him.
“Well, as the Ottoman Empire continued to expand, the Muslims ultimately conquered Spain and brought the empanadas with them. And once the Muslims left Spain in the 1400s, the Spanish Empire sprouted up and began its expansion. The conquistadores brought it to The Americas in the 1500’s,” Bosco said matter-of-factly, pushing his glasses up his nose and popping a few strawberries from a nearby bowl into his mouth. “It’s really a dish that’s founded through wars and conquests.”
“And how do you know all of this?”
“Mama told me. She makes them just as good as your grandmother, you know?”
Nico was furious. How dare Bosco come into his home and insult not only his family’s business but his grandmother’s cooking? “Bosco, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I have a bigger fish to fry than trying to argue with you on that point.”
“Jeez, don’t take it so personally. They’re just empanadas,” Bosco said, heading towards the door. “Good luck, Nico. Try not to burn the house down.”
With that taken care of, Nico turned to the task at hand. He cooked the beef and potatoes, adding all the necessary spices. But something was off. What was it that he was missing?
“Ahh, the cumin!” Now that he comes to think of it, cumin was not a spice that originated from Spain. Yet, it was a vital ingredient in any forms of empanada. Nico suddenly remembered his grandmother explaining to him that cumin’s popularity gained momentum in the Middle Ages and its origins can be traced back to Iran and the Mediterranean. The same goes for raisins, another popular filling. They were found in Persia and Egypt as early as 2000 B.C. Maybe Bosco had a point, Nico thought to himself. Maybe the Middle Eastern characteristics of the dish are still inherently imbedded in its core.
With the filling done, Nico moved on to the wrapping. He has watched his grandmother do it countless times but when it was with his own two hands, the process seemed more complicated. But he got this far, he couldn’t give up now. Nico pushed up his sleeves, grabbed a piece of dough, and got working.
*15 years later*
The clamor of pots and pans filled the back kitchen of Little Colombia. Chefs screamed at one another in Spanish as sou-chefs ducked their heads, chopping away in silence. Nico was garnishing a plate of asado bogotano when Bosco stormed into the kitchen.
“Nico! I need to talk to you about the prices listed on the menus.”
But the owner of the restaurant did not seem to hear; he was still sprinkling parsley leaves over the grilled meat, completely unaware of his name being called.
“Sorry, I was in the middle of something,” the young boy had aged well. Nico was as tall as he was handsome, with a smile that curled on just one side. “What is it that you wanted to talk about?”
“The prices. We have to increase the prices to keep up with the demand,” Bosco said impatiently. “These empanadas are flying off the shelf.”
“I don’t know, Bosco. I don’t feel comfortable making something that’s suppose to be accessible and cheap into an expensive and elaborate dish. Remember when we were kids? Empanadas were a poor man’s food.”
“They were but not anymore. Look at how far you’ve come,” Bosco said, gesturing to the massive kitchen with open arms. After college, Nico decided to open a restaurant after realizing that his passion for making empanadas was not going to disappear anytime soon. Over the years, what had started out as a hole-in-the-wall joint that specialized in the stuffed bread eventually turned into a five-star restaurant.
“Yeah but that doesn’t mean anything. I don’t cook for the money, you know that.”
“Whatever, Nico. All I’m saying is to consider it.”
Suddenly, a piercing screech rang out through the kitchen. A sou-chef had accidentally splattered oil on herself while frying a batch of empanadas.
Nico rushed to that corner of the room and put a cold towel on her wrist. “Be careful and step further back from the fryer. You’ll burn yourself if you’re this close to it.”