There are a number of empanada spots scattered across New Hampshire; some are crispy and fried, others baked – each one brings forward the spectrum of flavors from Latin America. Those who cook them are called empanaderos.
One of them is Angela Letelier, who folds empanadas perfectly, grabbing the borders and making a sort of squared shape. She is from the center of Chile and first arrived in Massachusetts to work as a teacher. There she met her husband online, but the two of them wanted a quieter, less stressful life, so in 2020, they moved to a small farm in Belmont.
Letelier, who’s gluten-free, decided to open Gluten-Free or Die, a bakery based out of her home where she sells donuts, muffins, and other treats. She combines that job with raising chickens on the farm.
Baking empanadas is something that makes her feel closer to her home country. They remind her of the connection with her mother.
“The Chilean empanada is big; it fits in an open hand and has a strong onion flavor,” she said. Letelier fills them with pino, a savory mixture of beef, eggs, and olives. For now, she cooks only for her family but have thought about selling them in her bakery. She wonders if people in the farmer’s markets would also love them.
An hour south, in Merrimack, Bolivian José Lopez Maita says his secret ingredient for his empanadas is oregano and a little bit of sugar.
For a few years, he sold his empanadas over Facebook, until six months ago, when he opened a small shop called El Peco where he sells salteñas, as they’re known in Bolivia, which are filled with a hearty beef stew and small potatoes.
“They are juicy. If you are not careful, you will end up with all the juice in your clothes,” he said.
Lopez Maita juggles his job as a radiologist and his dreams of becoming a doctor with his passion for empanadas. His two brothers and their wives barely slept when he opened the shop. Having it is a great accomplishment for them.
He remembers as a kid, salteñas were a luxury for his family and something he rarely got to eat. He says they used to sneak other people’s leftovers.
“We were very poor,” he said.
Lopez Maita says it hasn’t been easy to start a business in a town where the majority of the people are white and may never have tasted a salteña before. He works hard to motivate them to adventure into the empanada world.
Unlike Bolivia’s baked empanadas, Puerto Rican ones are fried. Elizabeth Silva, owner of El Camino in Plaistow near the Massachusetts border, has been selling them since the pandemic started. She serves authentic Puerto Rican food in her restaurant, and the beef, cheese, and roasted chicken empanadas are the restaurant’s jewels.
“It is almost like meditation when you eat that pocket of deliciousness,” she said.
Sofrito, a mixture of onions, cilantro, peppers, and spices, gives Silva’s empanadas the umami flavor that makes them so delicious.
“It’s probably because it’s so earthy that connects you with mother earth,” she said.
Silva left her job as an accountant to pursue her dream of cooking her grandmother’s recipes. She says she’s never looking back.
Empanadas are so popular in Puerto Rico, she says, that empanada shop-hopping is a thing there.
“We map all the different empanada places that we want to try, have something to drink, and then move to the next booth,” Silva said.
Silva thinks of empanadas as something that unites Latin America.
“There are many flavors, but all are good,” she said, “they just make you warm and cozy and happy.”
It just takes one bite.