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The palm-sized golden pies, shaped like half moons, look as though they could contain just about anything, and they very nearly can. Latin America’s answer to Italy’s calzone and India’s samosa, the empanada starts with a fried or baked bread shell—the “pan” at the center of its name—then mutates according to the nationality and the whim of whoever’s making it. In most parts of South and Central America, the flaky dough is made from wheat flour, but Colombians and Venezuelans substitute cornmeal to create a crunchier exterior. It’s the fillings, though, that truly demonstrate the variety of these little cornucopias. Ground beef, beans, cheese, roasted peppers, egg, olives, raisin, plantains, peas, and potatoes, alone or in combination, form only a partial list of common possibilities. Having begun a meal with an order of empanadas, you might decide to have a dessert of empanadas as well. Pineapple, pumpkin, guava, and other fruits turn them into twins of sweet turnovers.
Many nations uphold their own empanada traditions with great pride. Every year, the Argentine town of Famaillá hosts the Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada, a celebration of the country’s traditional square-shaped empanada that centers on an enormous cookoff to reveal the empanada queen, king, or jester. The festival’s 60,000 attendees typically consume about 400,000 empanadas produced from 160 clay ovens.