Empanadas: All You Need to Know About the Typical Panama Snack

Empanada is one of the most popular foods in Panama. It is a traditional dish in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries and thus comes in many different variations. It is a bread dough or puff pastry stuffed with different meats, vegetables, fruits, cheese, and sometimes sweet fillings. It is then baked or fried. The fillings for empanadas are very varied and so as the dough.

The popularity of empanadas resulted in a broad and diverse range of empanadas. Each country and each locality has its own version of empanadas. In Panama for instance, the empanada in Colon is very different from those in El Siglo.

Moreover, because of the diversity of the fillings that can be placed in an empanada, this cuisine can serve as a snack, a dessert (fruit-flavored empanada) or a full meal that will fill your belly. Panamanian empanada is especially popular for its variety. Its dough can be made of wheat flour, corn or cassava, and the fillings can be ground beef, frayed chicken, white or yellow cheese, tuna, sardines, and different types of fruits or vegetables. 

Being the “Crossroads of the Americas” Panama has also transformed itself as the food hub of Central America. It has become the melting pot of different food from Latin America. As such, the different popular empanada varieties from other American countries can most likely be found in Panama. For instance, the Bolivian empanada called Llauchas and the Argentinian empanada known as Tucumanas can also be found in Panama. 

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about empanadas in Panama, including its different versions or types, how to prepare the traditional Panamanian empanada and where to buy or eat the best empanadas when you visit the country.

History of the Empanada             

The origin of the Empanada dates back to the time when people fill their bread with food and vegetables, which they can conveniently carry and eat on the go when they travel or go outdoors. Filling bread with food is more expedient than preparing your meals while on the fields or while at work.

Eventually, the bread was replaced by dough, which wraps the stuff fillings. Wrapping prevents the fillings to fall off from the dough. This style of food preparation would pave the way to similar dishes like Calzone in Italy, the Borker in Turkey and Sfihas and Shawarma in Arab countries.

The idea of empanadas first appeared in ​​Spain in a cookbook called Libre del Coch by Ruperto de Nola. Published in Catalan in 1520, the book mentioned that empanadas are stuffed with seafood and are from the Galician culture. Some historians believe that empanadas were brought by Arabs to Spain during their Moorish invasions in Medieval Iberia and Umayyad Caliphate conquest of Spain dating 711 AD.

The term “empanada” is derived from the Castilian word “empanar”, which means “to enclose something in dough”.  The original Galician empanadas are stuffed with tuna, sardines or chorizo. In Panama, beef, pork and chicken are usually used as fillings for the empanada.

From Spain, empanadas were brought to Latin America by the Spanish conquistadores. The adoption of empanada by different countries resulted in the evolution of different versions. The dish quickly spread throughout Latin America and to Asia particularly the Philippines.

The Popularity of Empanada in Panama

If it’s pizza and burger in North America, it is empanadas in South America. Empanadas are a very popular food in South and Central America. They are so popular in Panama that even top fast-food chains like KFC and Dairy Queen sell their own local versions of empanadas that are only available for the home-grown market in Panama.

In Panama, empanadas are served at any time of the day. It is served for breakfast with coffee. In this case, the empanadas are usually made light. It is served for lunch, which is the main meal of the day for Panamanians. Empanadas made for lunch usually have heavy fillings. It can also be served as an evening meal. In other cases, an empanada is served as an appetizer before eating the main meals, as a dessert or sweet course eaten after meals, or a snack or light food to be eaten in between meals. 

Many Panamanians prepare their home-made empanadas for their families during holidays like Christmas and New Year, family gatherings, reunions, and other celebrations. Empanadas are also popular street food. You can buy one practically in any street corner or fond (Panamanian eatery) in most tourist spots or destinations in the country. It is also a common street food massively sold to revelers during national holidays and festivals such as Martyr’s Day, Independence Day, and Carnival, etc.

Indeed, buying and eating empanada while sight-seeing or exploring Panama is definitely one of the efficient ways to experience the culture of Panama. Empanadas are also cheap or economical that one way to travel on a budget in Panama is by eating empanadas on the go.

Is Empanada Unique in Panama?

No, the empanada is a famous dish that can be found around the world and it comes in different names. The term “empanada” is actually Spanish and generally refers to any baked or fried half-moon shaped- dough with different stuffing. It is alternatively called pastelitos or empanadillas in some other Spanish speaking countries.

The same is called meat pie in the US, samosa in Idia, Pachuqueños in Mexico, Saltena in Bolivia, pastel in Portugal, Catibias in the Dominican Republic, Pastel Ayami in Indonesia and Pastel de Forno in Brazil, among many others.  Empanada is, therefore, a world-wide dish similar to hamburgers and pizzas. 

Why is Empanada Popular in Panama?

Aside from the flavor variety, versatility, convenience, and economy of eating empanadas, this dish is popular in Panama primarily because corn generally is closely linked to the Panamanian diet and culture since ancient times. Corn has been a staple food of Panama since the first ancient settlers of the isthmus.

Because of this, many Panamanian traditional food, delicacies and dishes are corn-based such as buns, almojábanos, tortillas, tamales, chicheme, bollo, torreja and of course, empanadas. Panamanians traditionally use corn to make the dough of empanadas. Indeed, eating empanada is truly one of the authentic ways to experience Panamanian Culture.

Empanada Fillings in Panama

Empanada is one versatile dish. Its dough can be stuffed with lots and various fillings, which can transform the dish into a snack, a meal or a dessert. These delightful rolls can be cooked with numerous diverse kinds of fillings, from conventional flavorsome meal fillings to delectable saccharine stuffing.

The many conventional fillings used for empanadas are called Rellenos (stuffing). The choice for filling differs by country and by region. Thus, when it comes to creating flavors for empanadas, the sky is the limit. You can follow the classic fillings that have been hand over by erstwhile cooks or you can experiment and create your unique version by combining different ingredients that you like.

Empanadas are similar to pizzas in this aspect. You can add and mix different ingredients as topping for your pizza in the same way that you can stuff the empanada.

In Panama, the classic filling used for empanadas is beef and pork. Others add chorizo in the beef. Chorizo is a fermented and cured pork meat. Chicken or turkey is also a popular filling. In some areas, especially those along the shorelines, sardines, tuna and other fishes with chopped spices are more commonly used as fillings. Incidentally, left-over cooked chicken and meat are also commonly used to make fillings for empanadas.  This is also why it is popularly prepared at home so that no leftover food will come to waste. 

Empanada used for desserts usually uses sugar syrups with different types of fruits including strawberry, and even papaya. Other alternative fillings to make empanada desserts include ham and cheese, sweet cheese, banana, mango, pineapple, guava, passion fruit, and cinnamon

Empanada Dough in Panama

The empanada dough is somewhat similar to the dough used for making bread and pastries, except that it has less water and has more fats resulting in a dough that thaws into flecks or patches. This is critical to allow the dough to wrap up the fillings.

Wheat flour is the standard ingredient empanada doughs are made of. Most commercialized empanadas use wheat flour for doughs in Panama. However, an alternative to wheat flour is cornflour and cassava flour. In Panama, many home-made empanadas use corn to prepare the doughs.

Meanwhile, the locals use cassava or yucca for preparing a specific kind of Panamanian empanada called Carimañol. For sweet and dessert empanadas, the dough can be prepared using almond or chocolate flour or wheat flour mulled with flavors like cinnamon and citrus rind, among others. Still, some locals create inebriating empanadas by adding beer to the empanada dough.

Dipping Sauces for Empanadas in Panama

While empanadas can be eaten on their own, they can be served with different dips or salsa (sauce) which can add flavor, zest, and texture to the dish. Among the common dipping sauces that are served with empanadas in Panama included the chimichurri sauce, tomato hot sauce (Salsa Picante) and avocado sauce, among others. 

The chimichurri sauce is made of keenly sliced parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, vinegar, oregano, red pepper flakes, red or green bell pepper, which adds a stimulating pungent and garlic flavor to the empanada. There are different types of chimichurri sauce depending on the ingredients use. For instance, a balsamic chimichurri sauce uses balsamic vinegar. 

The tomato hot sauce, on the other hand, is made of red bell pepper, jalapenos, onions, garlic, and other ingredients. Hot sauce not only adds appetizing spice to the dish. It also helps improve digestion and provides additional health benefits such as reducing the risk of cancer, aches and pains and even stress and depression.

The avocado sauce, on the other hand, combines avocado with cilantro, peppers, garlic, and other ingredients. 

Dipping sauces for empanadas are very common not only in restaurants but also when people prepare the dish for serving at parties. The dipping sauces help provide flavor variety for an empanada with similar fillings. 

Is It Better to Bake or Fry Empanadas?

Neither fried nor baked empanadas are better. The choice to bake or fry will depend on the recipe, type of empanada, dough and personal preference. There are versatile doughs that can either be baked or fried. If you want your empanadas to be crisp, then frying empanadas would be better. Fried empanadas or empanada fritas are meant to be served hot and eaten right away.  Most empanadas served as full meals are usually fried. 

Empanadas that are baked are called empanadas al horno. They can be stored or placed in the refrigerator and reheated before serving. Baked empanadas can be served hot or cold.  Sweet empanadas that are often served as desserts are usually baked rather than fried.  

Types of Panamanian Empanadas

Carimañola

Also known as caribañola, Carimañola is essentially the same as empanada except that mashed yuca or manioc is used for making the dough wrapper. This Panamanian meat pie is considered one of the national dishes of Panama. Yuca or cassava is a nutty-flavored starchy tuber. In terms of looks, the carimañola also is also shaped more like a torpedo. Yuca is another staple food in Panamanian cuisine next to rice and beans. The carimañola is stuffed with ground meat, cheese or shredded chicken. It is often served with suero.

Empanada de Maiz 

Empanada de Maiz or corn empanadas are empanadas whose dough is made of corn. This is the traditional way home-made empanadas are made in Panama. Although corn flour is available, most home-made  Empanada de Maiz are usually prepared from scratch. The corn is grated and mashed to make the dough. Moreover, the most common filling used for Empanada de Maiz is chicken, which is called Empanada de maíz con Pollo. For snacks, shredded cheese is often used resulting in Empanadas de Maíz con queso.

Empanada Plantita

Plaintain tarts are empanadas with sweet banana fillings (sweet plantain puree). Variations include the addition of nutmeg and raisins. This type of empanada is usually served as a dessert. Plantitas is also a common empanada dessert in Panama because bananas are a major product and export of Panama. 

Empanada de Atún

Tuna empanada is one of the unique empanadas in Panama because the usual filling used is meat.  Empanadas originally used seafood fillings. Empanada de Atún is a common recipe in coastal areas such as Chiriquí and El Siglo. The most common tuna used is yellowfin tuna as well as cod.

Baudilia Empanada

Baudilia Empanada is a popular brand of empanada in Panama. It comes in different flavors including beef, pork chicken, cheese, and other sugary fruits. This empanada is made by Baudilia Alvarado, dubbed as the “Queen of the empanadas”. Baudilia Empanada has a very limited market. However, regular patrons of Baudilia Empanada claim that it is the best empanada in Panama. 

Empanada Sanjuanina

The Empanada Sanjuanina is different from other ordinary Panamanian empanadas because of its abundance of onion and the use of non-regular meat such as chivito (goat) or ciervo (deer) although beef can also be used. The profusion of onion gives the dish its typical spicy and succulent texture. Some versions would add raisins to give it a saccharine nuance. 

Calzone 

Calzon is actually the Italian version of an empanada. However, Panama also has its own calzone empanada. It is called calzone because of its exhaustive use of mozzarella cheese, a traditional Italian cheese made from buffalo’s milk.  Calzone usually uses chicken fillings. Calzone is especially popular in the La Villa region in the district of Lost Santos in the city Chitre. 

Llauchas 

As the food hub of the Americas, Panama is a great place to experience other popular versions of empanadas from other Latin American countries. An example of which is the Llauchas, a type of empanada from Bolivia.  This empanada dessert has a unique sweet dough and primarily uses cheese fillings. It is then baked rather than fried and consumed hot.

Salta Empanada

Another popular savory pastries originally from Bolivia which is also found in Panama is the Salta empanada or salteñas.  This type of empanada has its characteristic sweetness and juiciness and uses beef, pork, and chicken fillings.

Tucumanas 

Tucumanas are a type of juicy empanadas original from Argentina. Common fillings include beef, chicken and even llama. Among the unique ingredients included in the Tucumanas are the paprika, hardboiled egg and most especially the cumin. Aside from its health benefits, cumin is believed to be a natural aphrodisiac, which makes Tucumanas an ideal dish for dates.

Where to Buy or Eat the Best Empanadas in Panama?

Los Del Patio

Los Del Pation in Calle Tercera, Plaza Bolivar in Casco Viejo offers one of the best tasting and reasonably priced empanadas in the city of Panama. The “Empanada Gringa” is absolutely incredible. The resto-bar has art shops and an art gallery that primarily caters tourists and government employees.

Taller De Sabor

Taler de Sabor is a tiny and humble snack house in Bocas Town that offers one of the best empanadas across Panama. Located along Calle Ida across the Street From Tony’s Market, the empanadas in this snack house has different gourmet fillings and veggie options. The price is also very cheap. Taller De Sabor, which means flavor workshop truly lives up to its name. 

La Casa De Las Empanadas Y Tequeños

Located at the corner of Calle del Puerto and calle 8A sur, the House of Empanadas and Tequeños is another small and simple snack house that specializes in empanadas, cheese sticks and boquitas (finger foods in sticks).  Eating empanadas in this place carries with it a great experience and good times.

Artisana

Located in Casa #46, José A. Fabrega, El Cangrejo, Panama City, Artisana is a petite restaurant cafe established in 1984 that sells one of the best-made cheese empanadas (Quesos Chela) and the chicheme (corn beverage) in Panama. 

Empanadas Don Carlos

This 100% Panamanian family business established in 1986 is one of the most popular places to buy and eat empanadas across Panama. It started as a small family business which now has four branches located in Lefevre Park, Av. Justo Arosemena and a factory in Juan Díaz. The Empanadas Don Carlos primarily uses original fresh ingredients from Panama. Its empanadas are also delivered across the country. 

Che Empanadas y Hamburguesas Argentinas

Located in Nuevo Arraiján, Panama, this snack house offers the best southern empanadas in Panama. While its other offerings like hamburgers, pizzettas, and choripanes are equally alluring, its super appetizing empanadas stand out. Moreover, the place also provides caring and dutiful attention to guests, which makes their place a great visit to eat.

Casa Blanca

Located in Plaza Bolívar Casco Antiguo, Panama City, Casa Blanca is a Caribbean restaurant and bar that offers delicious food, great music, a nice atmosphere and good attention from its staff. The empanadas in Casa Blanca will take you to breathe away. Their menu especially tastes great to match the beautiful atmosphere and great vibe inside the restaurant.

Restaurant La Torre

Located along the Main Rd of Portobelo, Panama, this restaurant is like dining in a treehouse in the jungle. The La Torre Empanadas feature the traditional Panamanian empanada de Maiz which is tasty and scrumptious. You can appreciate the full flavor of the meat and spices used in the filling. The restaurant also offers many different seafood dishes on their menu.

La Reina Sazon Latina

Located in Calle Paseo Andrews | Pan Canal Plaza Local 1-B, Panama, this small restaurant which is dog-friendly sells one of the best tasting Venezuelan-style empanadas and other Latin food courses in Panama.  The restaurant which currently has two branches also offers home deliveries within Panama city so you can order your empanadas and enjoy them at the convenience of your home or your office.

Lolo Empanada

Lolo Empanada offers Venezuelan empanadas in Panama, which is unique for its crisp crust and tender inner texture. The restaurant is located in Super 99 |, Av. Belisario Porras, Panamá City.  It also offers Western meals like hotdogs and hamburgers. If you want to try the empanadas in this place, it would be advisable to order to go or to eat out because of the horde of regulars that frequent the place.

Caminito

One of the most popular restaurants in Panama, Caminito’s offers authentic empanadas from Argentina that come in a wide variety of different fillings. There are about 20 different flavors of empanada which included the Tucuman empanada and Patagonian lamb Empanada. Once you taste Caminito empanadas, you will realize why empanadas are more popular than pizza, hamburger or hotdogs in South America.

La Empanaderia

Located in Calle 56 Este, Plaza Centuria, Local 3 – Obarrio, La Empanaderia is a Venezuelan bistro and cafe that sells Venezuelan style empanadas called pastelitos that comes in different varieties such as ham and cheese, cheese and corn, beef and cheese, etc.  If you love empanadas, this is definitely one of the places to go and eat. They offer one special type of empanada every day of the week.

How to Make Traditional Panamanian Empanadas?

To make the dough, you need flour, salt, butter, egg, water, and vinegar. You can use all-purpose flour or cornflour.  Sieve flour with salt into a large bowl and mix butter. You can use a blender to mix them until it looks like a coarse meal. In a separate container, mix egg water and vinegar. Add this to the flour mixture and blend until it looks bushy. Turn out dough onto an evenly floured plane and gather together, then mold mildly with hands to merge dough. Shape dough into a plain rectangle.

For the filling, you can heat oil on a pan and sauté onion and garlic until they turn brown. You can then add the main ingredient of your choice i.e. ground meat (beef, pork or lamb), stripped chicken or turkey or fish. Fry the main ingredient until mostly browned.

Chorizo is also commonly used in Panama. Drain off grease, reduce to low heat then add the spices like bell pepper, cherry pepper, bay leaf, paprika, or oregano among others. Add salt and pepper to taste. Once done, leave the filling in a container to cool down.

To make empanada, fill one side of the flat empanada dough with the filling. Faintly moisten the brinks of the dough and press edges together using your hand or fork to seal.

Once you have finished and prepared everything, you can then fry the empanada using a large pan or skillet with oil. Simply place each empanada on the heated on the oil of skillet and let it fry until they turn brown.  Turn the empanada to the other side.

Prepare a plate with a paper towel, so that excess oil of the fried empanada is absorbed. If you are planning to bake the empanada, you should brush or soak your empanada in an egg wash mixture. Preheat the oven at 375 degrees. Place and leave the empanadas in the oven for 5-20 minutes, until they turn golden brown. 

Conclusion

Empanada is a delicious baked or fried pastry or flaky crust dough with an assortment of fillings such as meat, chicken, fish, cheese, fruits, and vegetables. It is a cultural food in most Latin American countries including Panama.

It is a versatile food that can be served as an appetizer, dessert, snack or a full meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Panamanian empanadas are traditionally made of corn (Empanada de Maiz) or cassava (Carimañola), instead of wheat flour.

Corn and cassava are two staple foods in Panama and faithfully interconnected to the Panamanian regimen and culture since time immemorial.

Traditional Panamanian empanada is normally stuffed with beef or chicken. Thus, eating empanada is one of the best ways to experience the culture of Panama.

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

Recent Posts