Mallorca Monday: Empanadas

“Empanada” is a general term you see a lot with Spanish dishes that can mean many different things. Literally, it means breaded, (or enbreaded in, surrounded by bread). So sometimes you’ll see “Pollo Empanada” on a menu, and it’s just a breaded chicken breast. We actually made this mistake in Puerto Rico, we wanted a savory pastry but got Shake N Bake.

So it depends on the location or the context I guess. Usually when people say empanada they’re talking about a half-moon shaped pastry. Usually folded over and crimped down, it contains any numbers of meats, cheeses or veggies. They can be baked or deep-fried but they’re more or less the same shape across South and Latin America. Of course everyone has their own ideas of what goes inside.

In Spain empanadas can be turnover pockets but are more often a pie you just take slices from. The preferred filling is a tuna, tomato, hard-boiled egg, olive, semi-sweet goop that is quite an acquired taste.

Well, Mallorcan ones are completely different from everyone else’s. The empanadas here are cheery, little, self-contained meat pot pies called panades.

They don’t need a wrapper and aren’t baked in a muffin tin. The elastic dough is formed into a pot, filled, and is given a lid.

The island does have the half-moon empanadas you’re more visually familiar with called cocarrois. They’re most often filled with vegetables, peppers and pine nuts.

The pot-o-meat empanadas, panades, are more common. You can get them in any bakery, supermarket, or convenience store, heck, you can even get them at my school’s cafe.

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Here you can see meat, meat and peas, and vegetable empanadas.

While there are different kinds of fillings, the one we have seen most consistently are filled with meat and peas. It can be any kind of meat, but pork is the most common. Lamb is also a household favorite over here, and chicken is common for the cheaper more “gas station-y” empanadas.

When do you eat them?

They are typically eaten around fasting time (Easter) – especially the lamb ones. However, they are a common lunch or quick snack. They’re always ready to go and ready to eat from any bakery.

Usually, though, their popularity spikes around Easter. Families get together to make the lamb ones en mass. You eat them all during the Easter celebrations. The last ones are eaten the Sunday after Easter. This is Pancaritats day to celebrate the patron saint of Mallorca and to give bread to the poor. Any extras, I imagine, would go to the poor.

The cocarrois are eaten for Lent (fish or vegetable base).

What’s the most common type?

The pea and pork one. Go to a bakery and this will be the most common kind. Also it’s the kind people think of when they think of a Mallorcan empanada. To the point they use it for advertising. For a while there was a billboard nearby with a mega panade on it. A ten foot tall pea and pork empanada towered above us with no words – just the peas and pork. It spoke for itself.

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History

Humans have been putting meat inside bread since we could pee standing up. It’s portable and amazing- the bread thing, not the pee thing. So there’s no way to really credit any one group with the brilliance of meat-in-bread empanadas. Possibly the Greeks figured out that oil and flour makes a sticky dough perfect for portable meat. Possibly philo dough from the middle east was the first.

All the empanadas in Latin and South America are credited to Spain (some people say Italy) bringing the idea over. But it’s possible South America was already doing it with cornmeal and the Spanish just put a name to it.

The first empanada is credited to a Catalan cookbook dating from 1520 according to the internet. But I have a wild proposal and that maybe empanadas aren’t even Spanish at all. The fact is Spain was fused with Moors and Moorish culture from 700 to 1492. Empanadas look an awful lot like sambusak (aka sambusa aka samosas). Sanbusak can be traced back to Persia and Persian “sanbusa” which meant triangular. It was described as a stuffed pastry in the 800s.

A writer from the 1200s, Ibn al-Adim, wrote about empanadas saying they were half-moon shaped. He wrote they were stuffed with meat, clotted cream and cheese. The exact recipe pops up suddenly in Spain at the same time.

Many websites seem to say the same ideas – Persia invented it, it was brought over to North Africa, then the Moors brought it to Spain. Since Ibn al-Adim was writing about them in the 1200s the whole “empanadas were invented by Spain and written about in 1520” is about 300 years too late.

How did Mallorca get the cute little pot-pie shape?

We have no idea. What’s interesting is the traditional recipe for panades is it calls for lamb not pork.  And now traditionally at easter they all switch to being lamb panades not the usual pea+pork. The original panades seem to be closely tied to Jewish Passover traditions of eating lamb and not eating leavened bread. Unleavened bread (pastry) wrapped around lamb. Suspicious.

Sure, you might say, Jews? But Spain was once the largest community of Jews in the world. The most prosperous and largest group that dates back to probably before/just around the Roman times. It’s not impossible that Mallorca – a closed off island – would have things introduced by predominant cultural groups. Then the locals would adapt it and it would morph into how it is now. The Muslims introduced the empanada, the Jews said “let’s put lamb in it.”

In the middle ages pork and lard became the fashionable thing to eat. Not because it was delicious, but because Spain’s “enemies” were  (now) Jews and Muslims (who don’t eat pork). It’s possible people ate a lot of pork and lard as a proof that they weren’t Jewish or Muslim (because of the Inquisitions) or just to spite them.

Almost all bread, cookies, cakes and pies are now made with lard in Mallorca. There’s no space for olive groves (olive oil) or cows (butter), it’s also just tradition. Without other groups (like the Romans) bringing olive oil over and with major cultural shifts (kicking out the Jews and Muslims) Mallorca just stuck with the lard. The fact that they use hot water and lard to make the dough (rather than cold water and butter that usually make pie crust) they created a much more hearty dough that could hold a shape and be worked with like clay. One that could hold itself up in a pot pie shape. Honestly it could’ve been a child, given a piece of dough to play with who molded a little pot with a lid.

In Summary

An empanada is probably one of the most global foods you can eat. It’s a testament to human ingenuity (how can I take my meat with me?) and creativity (what happens if I mix this and this? Oh shit, that’s good!). The Mallorcan empanada is no different, an unholy combo of three religions working independently to make, fill and shape an adorable little pot pie. The recipe is forthcoming and even if you don’t eat pork or lard or peas find a way to adapt it and celebrate middle age globalization.


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