Empandas are the classic Argentinian backpacker food. Relatively cheap, filling, and available absolutely everywhere. In fact, empanadas are so ubiquitous in Argentina, I've developed an unofficial cost of living indicator based on empanda price. Similar to the well-known Big Mac Index, the Empanada Value Analysis Number uses the price of a single empanada, purchased to-go at a standard local fast-food restaurant, to determine the relative price levels in a town in Argentina. The reference chart look something like this:
Emapanada Value Analysis Number
(price of one empanada)
<6 pesos: A place to hang for a while, you never see prices like this!
6 pesos: Surprisingly cheap town for Argentina.
7 pesos: Not too bad.
8 pesos: Standard.
9 pesos: A bit pricey.
10 pesos: This is a notably expensive town.
>10 pesos: Time to leave.
Anyway, if I do have one problem with empanadas, it’s the lack of flavors. Empandas, as a food, desperately need a paradigm-shattering, creative-ingredient revolution like pizza went through years ago. Remember that? There used to be a standard rundown of pizza options. You had choice, but not that much choice. Pepperoni, mushroom, double cheese, etc. Then, all of the sudden, it felt like the whole pizza world just opened up. Fruit on a pizza! Fried egg! Obscure seafood and gourmet cured meats and crazy combinations. ((Green apple and caramelized onions – that’s my jam!)) People started doing away with tomato sauce! Artisanal places used high-end toppings and asked customers to pay $30 for a pizza. Thin-crust and authentic Neapolitan preparation become a trend. A whole selection of sandwich-inspired pizzas came onto the scene - buffalo/ranch chicken and Philly cheese-steak and cheeseburger. It was crazy!
Yes, the pizza revolution was an exciting time for all of us. It was a time you were forced to look off into the distance and ask yourself “What is pizza? And what can it be?”
Empanadas need such a heady shift of accepted ideals. Right now we’re working with three defined, available everywhere standards: Beef, chicken, and vegetable. After those three, some places offer up these other usual suspects: cheese and onion, rocquefort ((A French blue cheese that is very, very popular in Argentinian cuisine.)), ham and cheese, caprese, and humita ((A corn and onion mixture.)). Rarely, you might see spicy beef or tuna.
And that's it. There’s not even any mixing of those basic ingredients (chicken and cheese, for instance, does not exist as an option). I’ve been to dozens of empanda shops and have literally never, ever seen any other flavors. This is arguably the country's most popular food and it hasn't evolved in decades. Something needs to change.
Every once in a while, I’ll try to light a spark and start a revolution. I’ll walk into the shop and say, in my broken Spanish:
“Do you have any pesto shrimp empanadas?"
The shop owner will pause, then look off into the distance. I can see him thinking.
“Shrimp? In an empanada? Hmm….what is an empanada? And what can it be?”