Exploring the Delicacy: Salta Empanadas on the Menu

By | 20 March 2024

What to drink with an Argentine version of a Latin American specialty.

By Joanna Simon

On my last wine trip to Argentina five years ago, I spent one enjoyable evening at a restaurant that only served empanadas, but otherwise, as I remember it, beef, mostly steak cooked at an asado (barbecue), was the main feature of every lunch and dinner. It wasn’t a surprise, least of all an unpleasant one, although I couldn’t have kept up the pace for much longer. 

With a cattle population of 53 million and a human population of 45 million people, Argentina still leads the world in beef consumption. The figure has declined from an annual average of just over 74kg (163 pounds) per person 30 years ago to around 47kg (104 pounds) today, as inflation-hit Argentinians turn to cheaper meats, especially chicken and pork, and as vegetarianism increases, but beef is still a way of life. 

As are empanadas—individual half-moon shaped, folded, filled pastries, mostly savory, but by no means exclusively. I don’t remember a lunch or dinner on my 2019 visit when empanadas were not served, often as part of the warm-up act before giant steaks, other meats, morcilla, sausages, and vegetables emerged from the parrilla (outdoor grill).

Empanadas are popular in Chile and other Latin American countries, as well as in Spain, Portugal, and the Philippines, but nowhere seems to have quite the same devotion to them—obsession might be a better word—or as many regional variations, as Argentina. Almost inevitably, there is a National Empanada Day, April 8, and a national festival. The three-day Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada, held in September in a city named Famaillà in Tucumán province (situated south of Salta), of course includes the National Empanada Championship.


While it is evident that empanadas were brought to Latin America by the conquistadores, there isn’t a lot of concrete information about their exact origins. They are believed to have originated in Spain, where empanar translates to ‘to bread’ (coat food with bread or breadcrumbs), though the first instance of portable food—bread filled with vegetables for travelers and individuals spending their days out on the land—dates back to ancient Persia, many centuries BC. Filled pastries of various shapes, fillings, and names followed, spreading across Asia Minor and Northern Africa.

The earliest mention of empanadas is found in El Llibre del Coch by Robert de Nola. This novel can be located in the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya in Barcelona. The book was printed on a Gutenberg press in November 1520, but was written around 1490, predating any Spanish cookbook. In this book, empanadas are described as seafood-filled pastries in recipes from various cuisines including Catalan, Italian, French, and Arabian. Several decades later, in the 1880s, the first cookery books from Argentina made mention of empanadas. One such book was Susan Torres de Castex’s La Perfecta Cocinera (1888) which included a recipe that contained meat, onions, a boiled egg, raisins, and olives.

In current times, the most common filling for empanadas is beef, either diced, ground or occasionally sliced. Other popular fillings include chicken and humita (a type of creamed corn). Seafood-filled empanadas are relatively rare with their most notable presence being in the coastal area of Patagonia. Varieties containing river fish like surubi (catfish) and dorado are found in the northeastern provinces of Santa Fe, Entre Ríos, and Corrientes.

While I had initially intended to delve into the regional variations of empanada fillings, my attempts were met with conflicting accounts and information. It’s a challenge to precisely categorize which of these pastries include ingredients such as hard-boiled eggs, green olives, raisins, peas, potatoes, or bell peppers and whether they are fried or traditionally baked.

However, a common feature amongst nearly all Argentine empanadas is the use of a flour-based dough. The method of sealing this dough and creating a distinctive decorative edge is known as repulge. In some regions like Tucumán and Córdoba, empanadas are often fried, but baking is more common. Notable exceptions include pastries made with mandioca (cassava) dough found in Misiones, Corrientes, and Formosa. Scallions (spring onions), cumin, and paprika are common fillings, and occasionally these pastries are served with spicy salsa criolla or a herby chimichurri, which is a favorite accompaniment to steak in Argentina.

The regions each have their unique version of the delectable Salta empanada, traditionally filled with finely diced beef. Its unique twist includes spices and fine ingredients like eggs, boiled potatoes, raisins, green olives, and even a dash of chilli powder for a bit of kick. The subtle addition of raisins results in a sweet and yet spicy delicacy. Sometimes, peas from neighboring Jujuy’s empanadas find their way into Salta’s version.

Jujuy’s empanadas also share Salta’s spiciness. However, they showcase a wider variety of meat fillings namely goat meat and chicken, which are, arguably, more synonymous with Catamarca and La Rioja’s interpretations.

Tucumán offers yet another variation of this dish, opting for beef-based empanadas made from thin slices from the flank, known as matambre. Combined with ample quantities of scallions and cumin, these empanadas appear to be a crowd-pleaser. As usual, eggs and olives are familiar ingredients. Other traditional fillings include Mondongo (tripe) and chicken, but there is no consensus on whether the quintessential Tucumán empanada should be baked in a clay oven or fried.

Patagonia introduces a coastal twist, utilizing seafood fillings such as king crab. The region is also famous for its empanadas made from organic pasture-raised lamb, slow-cooked and flavored with a blend of aromatic herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary.  

One might argue that the most unique regional empanadas originate from Córdoba. The filling typically revolves around beef, but it’s noticeably sweet due to raisins and white sugar, which is not just sprinkled on top before baking, but also mixed into the filling.

Choosing a wine to pair with the empanada córdobesa could be tricky, considering its sweetness. However, the question of wine pairing with empanadas begs attention. Often, in Argentina, the wine that accompanies beef empanadas is the Malbec, selected for the steak and foods to follow. Sometimes, though, a lighter Bonarda or a trendy Cabernet Franc is chosen.

However, Salta presents an exception to this norm. Salta’s local white wine, the aromatic Torrontés, is traditionally paired with their beef empanadas. Initially skeptical, my first experience surprised me pleasantly. The Salteña filling’s spicy, sweet, and sharp notes—from green olives, raisins, and chili—mean that their empanadas aren’t dominated by a “beefy” flavor. A Bodega Colomé Estate Torrontés pairs well, but the more complex and mineral Susana Balbo Signature Barrel-Fermented Torrontés from Uco Valley would also be a great fit.

Sure, Torrontés might be the instinctive “when in Rome…” choice. But it’s definitely not the only, or even the only white, wine that pairs well with Salta empanadas. Skin-contact white wines are typically a good match for the spicy meat filling. For instance, consider the rich, complex, textural Doppler Estate Traminer 2021 from Slovenia.

Full-bodied dry rosés, especially from Mediterranean France, also have their place – wines such as Grenache-based Tavel, Mourvèdre-based Bandol, or Domaine Mourchon Soubois Rosé 2022, a Syrah-based Séguret that is designed for food and was aged on its lees in large oak barrels for six months.

With red wines, you shouldn’t go wrong with Malbec, unless you overwhelm the empanada with a powerful, heavily oaked, young wine, or choose one that is too simple and jammy. Recommendable one: Zuccardi Q Malbec 2021. It originates from high-altitude Valle de Uco vineyards and is fermented in concrete with native yeasts and aged in concrete and untoasted French oak barrels.

As for other reds, there are various possibilities, particularly among medium-bodied wines with a slightly spicy, red fruit character, among them old-vine Cinsault from Itata and Maule in Chile, Greek reds meant to be drunk young made from Xinomavro and from Agiorgitiko, and both Nebbiolo and Valpolicella.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *