Along with the millions of Europeans who settled in Argentina during the late 1800s and early 1900s with hopes for a better life, large numbers of settlers from the Middle East—particularly Syria and Lebanon—came to try their luck in South America as well. At the time, Syria and Lebanon still formed part of the expansive Turkish Ottoman Empire, so when these immigrants arrived at Argentina’s ports, they were classified as Turks, which explains why, even today, Argentines refer to Arabs (from any country) or those of Arab descent as turcos.
Immigrants from the Middle East have put down roots throughout the country, but their numbers are particularly concentrated in the provinces of Buenos Aires and Córdoba and the Cuyo region (San Juan, San Luis, Mendoza, and La Rioja). It’s estimated that the current population of Argentina includes some 3.5 million Arab immigrants and their descendants.
While Argentine dishes based on Spanish and Italian cuisine normally receive all the culinary fanfare, a few specialties from the Middle East have left their mark on the nation’s culinary scene. One of these foods—known as the empanada árabe, fatay or sfija—wraps a well-seasoned meat filling in a basic dough similar to that of pizza. The bright acidity of lemon, the sharpness of onion, and the aromatic spices, including a touch of allspice, flavor the meat (usually beef but sometimes lamb). Empanadas árabes are traditionally shaped into a triangle, with a portion of the filling remaining visible in the center. Many enjoy squeezing a bit of lemon juice in the center to give the empanada a little extra zing.
Explore another side of Argentine cuisine with these Middle Eastern-influenced empanadas!
Tip: Substitute premade empanada shells (available in your grocer’s freezer) for the homemade dough as a time-saver. The texture of the dough won’t be the same, but the empanadas will still be delicious.
Empanadas Árabes or Fatay
Makes approximately 2 dozen empanadas
1 lb. ground beef
2 medium onions, finely diced
½ large red bell pepper, finely diced
2 stalks green onion [both green and white parts], finely chopped
juice of 2 lemons
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. ají molido [substitute crushed red pepper]
¼ tsp. allspice
Place the ground beef, onion, red bell pepper, green onion and lemon juice in a large non-reactive bowl. Add the parsley and spices (salt, black pepper, cumin, ají molido and allspice). Using your hands, gently mix the ground beef, vegetables and spices until well combined. Don’t overmix the meat. Store the meat filling, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for 3 hours.
½ cup warm milk [100º-110ºF]
1 ½ cup warm water [100º-110ºF]
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
7 cup bread flour [substitute all-purpose flour]
1 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. salt
Place the milk, water, olive oil, yeast and sugar in a small bowl. Whisk briefly to combine, and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes or until foamy.
Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stir to combine and then make a well in the center of the flour. Pour the yeast mixture into the well. Using a fork, bring the flour into the center and mix it into the liquid. Once the dough comes together, turn it out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface. Knead until you achieve a smooth, elastic dough, about 5 to 7 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume, approximately 1½ hours.
Punch down the dough and divide it into 24 equal pieces. Shape it into balls roughly the size of a ping-pong ball. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes, covered with a damp dishtowel. Lightly flour the work surface and roll out the balls of dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Cut the dough into circles using a saucer or small bowl as a template.
Assemble the empanadas:
Remove the filling from the refrigerator. Pour off the juices released by the meat.
Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of each empanada disc.
Seal the empanadas using one of the following two methods [both methods form a triangle]:
[Method 1] Bring the edges of the dough together to form the shape of a triangle, firmly pinching each corner shut. Leave the center of the empanada open to expose the filling.
[Method 2] Fold up the bottom edge of the empanada disc, pressing down firmly at the corners. Fold over the right side of the empanada disc at a 45º angle and press down firmly at the corners. Lastly, fold over the left side at a 45º angle and press down firmly at the corners. Leave the center of the empanada open to expose the filling.
Place the assembled empanadas on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in an oven preheated to 400ºF for approximately 20 minutes or until the dough turns golden brown.
Serve hot and with lemon wedges for a little extra zing.