Empanadas and More

The main reason I went to Tucumán Province last week was the Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada, which sounded like an only-in-Argentina kind of experience, and a chance to see another part of the country. Different regions of Argentina (and other countries) have their own versions of empanadas (similar to pasties and other savory pastries of dough surrounding filling). In Tucumán, traditional empanadas have only these ingredients: beef (cut with a knife, not ground), hard-boiled eggs, white onions, green onions, and specific spices (I’m not sure what all of them are, but I saw some kind of non-spicy ground red pepper, and salt and pepper). The empanada festival featured lots of different ranchos, pavilions run by different social groups in Famaillá, the town where the festival was held. Each rancho sets up tables and chairs and serves empanadas, maybe one or two other food items, and drinks. They also each sponsor one person who will compete in the empanada cooking competition, held the last day of the festival. The first two days the festival takes place only in the evening, when people come to visit the different food and drink stalls, shop the artisan and not-so-artisan stands, and hear live folkloric music in the amphitheater. On all three days, the decibel level is incredible, with each rancho and stall blasting its own music on a speaker about ready to burst. At one point I stood still and thought I counted music coming from six different sources.

I traveled to Tucumán alone, but met up with several friends from BA there, Carolynn, Ryan, Christine, and Layne. We were a good fit to travel together, especially because we all enjoy food and there was a lot of it to try. One day we had lunch at the local market, enjoying tasty locro (a regional stew with corn/hominy and lots of meat and also organ bits that we avoided), bombas (deep-fried balls of dough with meat or cheese inside, awesome with a spicy sauce on top), empanadas, chorizo, and more. That night, dinner became a bar/restaurant crawl of sorts, with artisanal beer and empanadas and tamales (pretty much as you’d expect, cornmeal batter with a meat filling, wrapped up in a corn husk and boiled) and some local super-sweet desserts, including cayote, that were kind of like jam made with various fruits—the lime was my favorite, sweet but sour. Another night we tried another dessert, quesillo con miel de caña, a piece of salty, slightly chewy cheese topped with walnuts and “honey” made from cane sugar that has a consistency like maple sugar, but sweeter and a little smokier, maybe. Other pastries besides empanadas are also on offer, including a lot with arab influences—sweet ones sticky with sugary-nutty filling, and savory ones called sfijas, filled with meat and onions, usually, and wrapped up in a triangle shape. We also discovered the local way to eat panchos (hot dogs)—loaded with as many toppings as you can stand. We’d stopped at the window of one of the pancherías to ooh and ah at the 20+ toppings every time we walked past, and finally went in to try it ourselves—twice!

The last night we ended up at a parrilla (restaurant with grilled meats and more), but none of us were that hungry after gorging on empanadas. Ryan and I ended up with a pizza a la parrilla (cooked on the grill)—my first since usually I don’t bother ordering anything but meat and potatoes and maybe a salad at a parrilla—and it was incredible. Really thin and crispy crust, a slightly smoky-tasting tomato sauce, and slices of chorizo. If this is what a pizza a la parrilla is usually like, I’m going to find more places to get one! Here’s Ryan’s picture of the pizza. (While you’re at it, check out the rest of his pix from Tucumán and the festival and beyond—he’s an excellent photographer, and I’m taking a photography class he’s teaching this afternoon!)

I was pleasantly surprised by the capital city, San Miguel de Tucumán, where we stayed. The population’s about 700,000 but it feels like a much smaller city, and it has a beautiful main plaza (which reminded me of the one in Arequipa, Peru) and many other plazas in the downtown core, is very walkable (despite the somewhat crazy drivers), and has interesting shops and restaurants. It has a very noticeable rhythm, with everything completely closing down for siesta each day—a good thing if you go along with it, a bad thing if you want to go shopping at 3 pm! The traditions and people in northwest Argentina are also more closely tied with the Andean/Incan cultures of Bolivia and Peru, so it feels very different than Buenos Aires and environs and the people tend to have darker skin. I felt like I stood out more there, but that might have just been because we seemed to be practically the only foreign tourists in town—Tucumán isn’t often visited by extranjeros, apparently, and we only saw three other foreigners at the empanada festival. I’d even consider living in Tucumán. It’s interesting to see how some places just pull me in a different way—this is how I’d expected to feel about Córdoba and I didn’t experience it at all.

In particular what made this weekend different, and great, was that Layne had made contact with the organizer of the festival in order to get more information for an article she’s planning to write about it. The organizer, Delia, met us at the gate on Friday night and got us in for free, and spent an hour or so showing us around, explaining how the festival is set up and how the competition works, and introducing us to people. We ended up in the entourage of two local politicians, who led us all into the tent of one of the ranchos to eat empanadas and tamales and shmooze. I felt a little antsy sitting there, but it was interesting to talk with them. The food was excellent, too, made by one of the former winners of the competition. We made our escape when they all headed to their front-row seats in the amphitheater to check out the music. We were in the back of the crowd, happy to be anonymous once again, and the woman we’d just been sitting across from (running for congress and the “godmother”of the festival) ended up onstage with the performers. We cheered just a bit louder than the other spectators.

The festivities were supposed to go until 4 am on Friday night, but we only lasted until 2:30 or 3, I think. Then a speedy 20- or 30-minute taxi ride back to the town, and it was time for bed. The next day we headed out of town towards the mountains and visited an ecological animal reserve. It was a little zoo-like for my taste, but they had some cool animals there and it was nice to get out of the city for a bit. We stopped for lunch (more empanadas) at a little store/restaurant that turned out to be the meeting point for the local paragliders. I was really tempted to go again, but didn’t.

The third day of the festival goes all day, and was the one I was looking forward to most because of the cooking competition. We weren’t sure where the cooking was taking place and pretty much found it by accident. While we were peering in to see the women preparing to make their empanadas, some of the people we’d met Friday night recognized us and invited Layne and Ryan in to talk to people and take pictures (Ryan was our official group photographer). Layne and Christine actually ended up getting to be judges, along with about 15 other people—former competition winners, prominent local figures, etc.—and Ryan continued taking pictures. Carolynn and I stood to the side, wishing we’d be invited to the fun, and eventually we were waved in to take pictures, and when they started serving empanadas to the judges one of the men motioned us over to sit with him and eat empanadas. We didn’t hesitate for a second! The judges know that they can’t eat a full empanada from each cook without going into total overload, so most take just a bite, or maybe two, of each one, and put the rest to the side, or give it to other eager tasters like us. We got to taste all of the competition empanadas, and the two I liked the most (I think—it was hard to keep track!) came in first and second! It was interesting to see how their preparation processes differed (for example, some cooked the green onions, others put them in raw at the end) and how the same ingredients led to completely different tastes in each empanada.

When I got back to Buenos Aires I had no interest in eating another empanada for a long time—which turned out to be less than a week! I had several empanadas yesterday, and feel like an expert, comparing the spicing and the way the ingredients are combined. These weren’t nearly as good as the ones I had in Tucumán, especially those fresh from the clay ovens of the best empanada makers in Famaillá.

Check out my pictures from Tucumán.

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2 Responses to “Empanadas and More”

  1. gonzodamnpage Says:

    Ohhhh man i love the empanadas they are grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreaaaaat maaaaaaaaaaaan no doubt my favourite are the tuna ones ddaaaaammmmmnnnnn taaasstttyyy hahahahahha
    Hey take a look at my Mexico city’s Home headin’ pictures and have ur say on them!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. santoki Says:

    Totally random, but did they have any empanada eating contests? Perhaps competitive eating is a US kind of thing. By the way, did you know that Kobayashi lost the Nathan’s contest back in July? xox

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