History of Empanadas


© History Oasis

Throughout time, the beloved empanada has taken many forms across cultures, yet its origins remain shrouded in mystery.

As both a convenience food and cultural icon, the story of the empanada reveals much about the societies and peoples that shaped its journey across centuries and continents.

We will explore some of the most intriguing tales that compose the history of the empanada, from medieval Spain to colonial Latin America.

Following the empanada's winding path through time, we find insights into religion, conquest, immigration, innovation, and exchange.

For a humble pastry, it has a rather extraordinary past, one that intertwines with legends, rivalry, piracy, and more.


empanadas from olden times
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The origins of the humble yet iconic empanada are shrouded in mystery and controversy.

As a beloved national dish across Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, the quest to determine the true birthplace of the empanada has become a matter of culinary pride and cultural identity.

The earliest known literary references to empanadas appear in cookbooks from 13th century Galicia, leading many Spanish scholars to conclusively declare Galicia as the ancestral empanada homeland.

However, Portuguese academics contest this, citing the abundant use of tin to shape empanada dough and fillings in medieval Portuguese cuisine.

Tin empanada molds have been discovered by archaeologists dating back to the 12th century AD in Portugal, suggesting the empanada may have Iberian roots.

Across the Atlantic, Latin American nations enthusiastically claim the empanada as their own.

Argentine cuisine views the iconic empanada as the national snack.

Chileans assert the Mapuche people were creating empanadas with wild roots and meats prior to colonization.

Mexican scholars point to early accounts of Aztec "tacos" prepared in maize dough as evidence that Mesoamerican cultures preceded the Spanish in conceiving of the empanada concept.

Further complicating matters are empanada varieties found as far-flung as the Philippines, where spiced ground meat empanadas echo Latin American styles, and Cornwall, where the British "pasty" follows a similar form.

Its evolution likely weaves through countless cultures, an enduring culinary concept reinvented across ages and continents.


A medieval cookbook with an empanada recipe
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The earliest known literary mentions of empanadas appear in 13th-15th century cookbooks from Spain and Portugal. These primitive codices offer a tantalizing glimpse into the origins of one of the most iconic handheld snacks.

In Libre del Coch, compiled in Catalonia circa 1324, there is a recipe for a small pie baked in a clay dish called an empanada.

The pastry shell was made from a coarse, unleavened bread dough wrapped around a chunk of aged ewe's milk cheese or preserved tuna, not unlike modern Spanish empanadillas.

The Portuguese cookbook Livro de Cozinha, handwritten in the 14th century, documents a similar recipe for empadas, with the addition of pork shoulder seasoned with saffron and cinnamon amongst the savory fillings.

Here we see how spices brought from the east transformed Iberian recipes into the Renaissance era.

These early empanadas reflected the limited preserved ingredients available in the Middle Ages.

Cured meats, salt cod, cheeses like aged sheep's milk or soft goat's cheese were prime candidates. Vegetable preserves extended limited seasonal produce into hearty empanada fillings through the winter months in medieval Spain and Portugal.


Empanadas of Latin America
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The Spanish colonial era marks a pivotal moment in the transatlantic migration of the empanada.

Carried across the ocean by conquistadors and colonists, this iconic Iberian snack took root and flourished across Central and South America between the 16th and 19th centuries.

The empanada was a natural fit for colonial life, providing portable nutrition for soldiers, laborers, and travelers crossing vast territories.

As it spread, the stuffing transformed based on the local crops and meats of each region. Beef empanadas became ubiquitous in the grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay—meanwhile chicken, pork, and plantains filled empanadas in Colombia and Venezuela.

The most profound reinvention of the empanada took place in the former Inca heartland.

Native Andean ingredients like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and quinoa appeared in empanadas, creating what we now recognize as traditional Peruvian and Bolivian empanada styles.

The merger of Spanish and Indigenous foods reflected the complex cultural convergence occurring in the colonies.

By the 18th century, the empanada's versatility and portability made it a staple working-class meal from Mexico to Patagonia.

Just as it had centuries earlier in Spain, the empanada sustained laborers, travelers, schoolchildren, and farmers across Latin America.


Jamaican empanadas
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The humble empanada holds fascinating insights into Belize's diverse cultural history.

While empanadas in Mexico are baked and in Jamaica are known as "patties" and fried, the Belizean empanada merges techniques from both. This fusion food represents the creolization that defined the nation.

In the late 19th century, Mestizo refugees fled the Caste War in nearby Yucatán, bringing their empanada recipes.

Simultaneously, Jamaican workers arrived in Belize, introducing flaky, fried patties. As women from these communities exchanged recipes, they innovated, fusing the Mexican masa dough with Jamaican frying.

The resulting Belizean empanada becomes a convenient, portable meal, vending at bustling markets and village streets across the country. Fillings like spiced chicken, beans, and plantains reflect the local abundance of this tropical, Caribbean nation.

This pastry encapsulates the essence of Belizean history and identity—an amalgam of indigenous, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences converging through immigration, innovation, and exchange.


A naval battle between Spanish and British ships
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During the 1500s, English privateers like Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher frequently raided Spanish galleons laden with goods from the New World.

These ships often carried large shipments of empanadas, a non-perishable food staple for sailors and colonists.

In diaries and logs from these privateering voyages, Englishmen describe stumbling upon these exotic hand pies filled with spiced meats, unfamiliar tropical fruits, and novel herbs.

They wrote of the empanada's practicality for sea travel and sustenance. Some even admitted the enemy's cuisine was superior to their own ship rations.

By looting Spanish vessels and colonies, the English inadvertently imported empanada culture before setting up their own American settlements.

The first empanadas arrived in English hands not through trade but as the spoils of piracy. An ironic origin story for a snack that came to feel quintessentially Spanish and Latin American.


Medieval nuns preparing empanadas
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The tradition of nuns and monks preparing empanadas to sustain weary Christian pilgrims journeying along the Camino de Santiago.

These acts of charity represented a sacred duty.

The pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela stretched 500 miles across northern Spain. The journey on foot took months, leaving poor pilgrims hungry and fatigued. To aid their devotion, clergy produced empanadas in monastic kitchens along the route.

Written records from the 1300s describe nuns carefully preparing dough, filling it with stews of salt cod or chickpeas, then baking scores of empanadas for distribution.

Monks gave them out at places where routes converged, or sold them at reduced cost.

Providing pilgrims with empanadas enabled common people to complete their religious obligations.

The empanada's portability and nutrition perfectly supported devotees in movement across the countryside. As Christianity shaped medieval Spain, empanadas sustained the faithful along arduous miles of road.

This charity and sustenance reflected Christian values in action—feeding the hungry, aiding the weak, and sharing God's grace.

The empanada went beyond a simple snack, becoming a symbol of spiritual nourishment for the soul on its journey toward salvation.



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