As a boy growing up in Tampa, Al Perez enjoyed some of the best empanadas he’d ever tasted. A street vendor sold crab and beef turnovers on Saturdays, and Perez never missed a chance to buy one. What could be better than picadillo or crab enchilada folded into the flaky fried dough? Memories of that taste, smell, and texture stood sharply in his memory. Later in life, he became obsessed with recreating those tender, savory turnovers. The empanadas Perez loves so much have a long history.
Like so many things, the invading Moors brought empanadas to Spain from the Mideast. The Spaniards quickly appropriated the concept and stuffed pockets of thin dough with their favorite ingredients. Galicia, a northern province that never fell to the Moors, popularized the baked snack globally using her émigrés. Galicians especially flocked to Argentina, Uruguay, and Tampa, Florida, during the 1800s and early twentieth century.
A Galician proverb warns that making love and kneading dough should not be rushed. The Gallegos are so devoted to their portable pies that they celebrate them in an annual festival. Food writer Penelope Casas has a novel theory about Gallegos and empanadas: “One explanation for the popularity of empanadas in Galicia is that they suit the character of these northern peoples, for the pies hide their contents from public view, just as the Gallegos often remain aloof and secretive. The idea may be a bit farfetched, but there is little doubt that Gallegos make better meat pies than anyone else.”
Almost every culture has a form of empanada: Somozas in India, meat patties in Jamaica, and sambucas in Iraq. There are empanadas for every taste, large or small, savory or sweet, filled with spinach, potatoes, fruit, or meat. Cuba strongly influenced Tampa’s empanada, adding more spices, frying them, and replacing the traditional Galician chicken or cod with beef and pork.
There is something innately mysterious about the empanada, even if one knows what’s inside. Like the deviled crab, empanadas serve as ideal street food, offering an efficient package. They are simultaneously durable and delicate and can be baked or fried. They store well and are easily warmed. Most of all, people eat empanadas for a snack, a treat between meals for sustenance and amusement. They make excellent antojitos, or little cravings, and tapas, small dishes usually consumed with alcohol, especially wine.
Here in Tampa, empanadas historically have been a way to serve leftovers. Many Latin dishes, such as ropa vieja, picadillo, roast pork, or crab enchilada, taste best the day they are made. What better way to make those leftovers more attractive than wrapping them in dough and frying them? Some enterprising households prepared empanadas to be sold on the street. Empanadas have become more prevalent in Tampa’s restaurants, especially where our more recent arrivals from Latin America have set up shop.
Tampa’s restaurants offer many varieties of empanadas, but I’d like to share just two of the best specimens I’ve found.
Our Colombian eateries make some of the best empanadas in town. Antojitos, a Colombian restaurant on Howard and Columbus, offers everything from light snacks to heaping entrées. The coarse corn crust is thin, with a texture somewhere between crispy and chewy. The interior of shredded beef and potato chunks is rich and moist. The aji (ah-HEE) on the table, a salsa of cilantro, green onions, and lemon juice, delivers a spicy kick while cutting the rich empanadas with a fresh green flavor.
Al Perez has perfected his version of the Latin turnover at Mr. Empanada. Bewitched by the empanadas of his youth, Perez has spent more than two decades painstakingly recreating them. His most distinctive creation is the crab empanada, the meat bathed in saucy sofrito. Al and his wife Audrey’s guava and cheese empanadas provide a surprise of their own. They are so good that I may never eat apple pie again.
No matter where you eat them or what stuffing they hold, good empanadas are the cheapest form of tourism in the world. A single bite can transport us to Colombia, Bolivia, or Galicia, Spain. Like languages, people develop and adapt recipes for centuries. Also, like languages, recipes convey culture and information about people and places, about what they value and enjoy. It is easy to forget that all the foods we eat are documents of living history. A fast-food hamburger likely has a short and unsavory industrial past. Only noble history can create a great empanada.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006
Andrew Huse works as a librarian who specializes in archives at the University of South Florida Tampa Library's Special Collections. He writes, speaks and cooks about history when he can. His past work includes the centennial history of the Columbia restaurant (2009) and his latest book is called "From Saloons to Steakhouses: A History of Tampa." (2020) With Noel Smith and Wenceslau Galvez, Huse also co-authored "Tampa: Impressions of an Emigrant," an annotated translation of a rare book from 1896. (2020) All of his books are published through the University Press of Florida. He also has a website along with his partners Dr. Bárbara Cruz and Jeff Houck called The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers
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